The blue light flashed from the top of a small pole aboard the boat, Secaucus written across its bow with "fire department" written along its sides. Over the last two years, this has been the boat that has helped pull people out of the water if they've fallen in, or responded to various environmental problems along the Secaucus shores of the Hackensack. But as of Memorial Day weekend, the boat has taken on a new role, roaming the 12 miles of Secaucus shoreline as the new river police. Resources devoted to on-water enforcement have become severely stressed in recent years. The state police, according to Police Chief Dennis Corcoran have combined two previous jurisdictions and now cover an area that goes from Sandy Hook to Lake Hopatcong - which means local waters will no longer be patrolled unless the local police do it. "The state notified us in January that they would cutting back," Corcoran said. "We made the determination that we would do the patrols ourselves." This means Secaucus is one of a handful of communities in the state with its own active marine division. Councilman John Reilly said this has become necessary because of the increased use of the river for water recreation. "Since the county installed the boat launch at Laurel Hill Park, the river has seen more and more activity," Reilly said. "We've received more and more calls to help people stranded on the river." The dock, which was installed in the park in 1996 as part of Hudson County's effort to make the river more accessible for recreation, sometimes sees as many as forty boats, trailers lined up one after another waiting for their turn to get into the water. Previously, patrols by the state police were infrequent, and complaints often fell onto the shoulders of the local police. The report would come into police station, dispatcher would either call the state police - which took time - or the chief would request the fireboat to go out to answer the call. "With the patrol already in the water, we're in a much better position to deal with emergency situations," said Reilly. The idea is to provide greater security and protection, and promote good boating safety. "So if you see the fire boat on the water with a police sign on it, you'll know what it's all about," Reilly said. The patrol rides the river from just above Tony's Old Mill at the mouth of Mill Creek, marking the northernmost boundary of Secaucus, to the St. Paul's Avenue pump station on Penhorn Creek at the southernmost tip. Patrols will also watch for debris in the water. Indeed, as the tide comes in, telephone pole-sized logs float in the fast moving water, any of which could break a prop and leave a boat helpless. The patrols will also look out for boats stranded on the shores. As the patrol makes it way down stream toward the boundary of Jersey City, the white hull of a boat sits on the muddy shore near the Copper's Coke plant. It's already a victim to the river pirates that strip such abandoned boats - even before the owners can return to salvage the craft. "Some people decide that it's not worth salvaging the boat so they leave it," Reilly said. "The Army Corps of Engineers won't touch it unless it's in the channel. And a boat like that in high tide during a storm could come back into the water and pose a hazard." A safety issue
Safety is also a concern, especially for the Secaucus-based Coast Guard Auxiliary, with whom the town has talked frequently about setting up the river patrol. "The coast guard is very concerned about the boating activity," Reilly said. U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that New Jersey waters are among the nation's most dangerous for boating with the seventh highest number of reported recreational boat accidents and the eighth highest number of boating injuries nationally. These figures are particularly startling because New Jersey does not have a year-round boating season, nor are all its waterways used as fully for recreation as they might be. Reilly said the patrols would be out on the water on weekends over the summer. Most accidents, according to the state police, happen on weekends, and most are due to carelessness and mental errors. Last year, there were 223 noncommercial New Jersey boat accidents in which at least $500 in damage or injuries resulted. Those accidents resulted in 126 injuries, the average number for the last four years. A study done on the matter showed that sixty-four percent of boat operators involved in accidents from 1996 through 1998 had no formal boat-safety training. In 1995, the year before state education requirements for personal watercraft (commonly known as Jetskis) operators and children took effect, 84 percent had no training. "A lot of people think they can just buy a boat and put it in the water," Reilly said. "They don't know they have to take a safety course and that we can check to make sure they do." According to state law, anyone born after Dec. 31, 1978 must take a boating-safety course before they can operate a powerboat. All personal watercraft operators must take an eight-hour boating safety course regardless of their birth date. Almost as if staged, one family on June 4 launched their boat only to have it stall as soon as it left the dock. "There's a perfect example," Reilly said. "That boat didn't even have an anchor aboard, which means that if our patrol wasn't there, it might have floated away down river." "It might not have stopped until it reached the bay," said Mayor Dennis Elwell. The coast guard auxiliary has trained the police officers in various aspects of boat safety, as well as the state regulations covering boats. Lt. Joseph Kickey will head the eight-officer team. "All the police officers put in the hours of training and are certified," said Corcoran, noting that Secaucus has dedicated seven officers to the duty, all of them volunteers. "We had twice as many volunteers as we needed." Corcoran, standing on the dock at Laurel Hill Park, watches his men make the first round along the river. "The officers will check on boating equipment and Jetskis," said Corcoran. "They will patrol here the entire boating season which should be up to about Oct. 1. They have the power to issue summons for violations." These are the same as traffic tickets and result in a court hearing. Under New Jersey State law, violations on the water can mean points added to an automobile driver's license. Regulations are strict with as many rules of the water as there are on the road. Even as the police boat begins its patrol, a 22-foot speedboat barges under the rail bridge near Fraternity Rock. The boat leaves a wake of white so wide even people on the shore can see it is moving faster than the 5 miles per hour the law says boats must slow to while going under bridges. Jetskis are a high risk
According to state reports from last summer's boating season, state police routinely stopped reckless water skiers in the area of Laurel Hill Park - a side effect of the installation of the boat launch there several years ago. Boating-safety experts agreed that the surge in use of the personal watercraft - the small, speedy boat touted as the motorcycle of the sea - poses a major new hazard on the bays, rivers and ocean. Forty percent of personal watercraft accidents involve rented boats. Boaters worry about personal watercraft operators trying to "jump" the wake left behind larger boats. Ten people have been killed in personal watercraft accidents in New Jersey in the past 10 years. Reilly said last summer, the Secaucus fire department boat had to go out routinely to rescue Jetski riders who had been stranded in the mud at low tide, after they had wandered up into one of the many creeks.