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Boat & Water Patrol educates, re-educates

Lowell Koebnick is one of Hubbard County's three Boat & Water Patrol officers. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

"Need three things," is Lowell Koebnick's standard greeting to boaters.

That means after he sees your current registration, he needs to see a life jacket within reaching distance for everyone on the boat, a floatable cushion or "throwable" and a fire extinguisher if you have an inboard motor or built in fuel tank on a 16 foot or longer craft.

Kids 10 and under must wear a life jacket while the boat is in motion.

Koebnick is one of Hubbard County's three Boat & Water patrol officers during the summers.

He spends 40 hours a week patrolling the lakes, especially the "hot ones" with a lot of activity and boat traffic. He's on his 14th or 15th year.

He can't remember.

"Those are Belle Taine, Long, Potato and Fish Hook," he said of the frequently patrolled lakes.

The Saturday afternoon during Memorial Day weekend, Koebnick pulled over 53 boats and 11 jet skis in a couple hours on Belle Taine.

The simple rules of operation need to be reinforced over and over and over.

Sunday, almost every boater Koebnick checked had tucked his or her life jacket in a boat compartment, where they'd be inaccessible if there was a mishap. It was a windy day with whitecaps coming off the lake.

On the plus side, every child boating that afternoon was jacketed. He rewards them with Dairy Queen gift certificates, compliments of the state of Minnesota. He hopes to hand out thousands this summer.

Koebnick shows remarkable resilience stressing the same rules to each boat.

"We'll be looking for jet skis too close to ramps, reckless driving complaints" and alcohol, he said.

Opening fishing day he investigated complaints of a group of anglers on Middle Crooked Lake.

There were eight guys, all drinking, in a 14-foot boat with a 33-horse motor. Only four had life jackets. One of the drinkers was a minor.

The patrol officers carry PBTs - portable breath test kits - to measure a boater's alcohol level.

In the case of the Middle Crooked gang, citations were issued, but not as many as you'd think. One minor in consumption, the life jackets and some warnings.

"I'm a firm believer that the situation and the attitude will determine whether you're given a warning or written up," he said.

"It'll ruin a $100 bill for not having enough life jackets on. But the courts decide that. We just write them up."

Koebnick keeps written records of every boat he has contact with and submits those records to the state. The contacts justify the grant monies the county gets to hire the third officer.

Two patrol by boat; the third on a jet ski.

Generally, he finds boaters cooperate, which makes his job easier. About the only complaints he gets are that the fish aren't biting.

He gets asked dozens of times where the fish are.

His standard response is "in the water."

He carries a First Aid kit and oxygen in case there's a medical emergency.

During the spring and fall, Boat & Water officers place buoys and "No Wake" signs on lakes. Officers also make annual inspections for the county's 80-some resorts.

They check boats, registration, life jackets and answer questions resort owners may have. And if boaters report partially sunken logs on a waterway, the officers remove them or place a buoy nearby as a warning.

Officers also check rafts that are left in the water for the season. Each must have registration so the owner can be located if the raft breaks loose.

He's also aware that running over an angle's fishing line won't win him any brownie points.

"Where's your line?" he asked before announcing he'll be pulling alongside a craft.

Koebnick doesn't fish anymore.

"About the last thing I want to do is get on the water," after a work shift, he said.

He knows most lake residents, seasonal or year-round. They automatically hoist their life jackets in the air when he cruises by.

The officers are aided by 26 volunteers on various lakes. The volunteers don't have the power to issue citations, but can collect license numbers for follow-up.

Koebnick is in his 42nd year of law enforcement. He served 21 years as Nevis chief of police.

In an ideal world, boaters would know they need life jackets handy.

But then Koebnick remembers the "experienced swimmers" he's pulled out of various lakes.

He puts his boat on the trailer to re-launch at another lake, to re-educate more forgetful boaters.

It's an important job.

And for those who get off with a warning, they may not be so lucky the next time.

"I've got a long memory," he says with a wink.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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