County OPP marine unit goal is water safety

Wellington County OPP Constable Sarah Van Norman scours the lake here as the police boat cruises gently along on a sunny, mid-week afternoon.

She’s part of the OPP marine unit and its seven-member force charged with ensuring boaters take to the water with the proper safety gear on board and the required boating licence for the person operating the craft.

The unit also patrols for boaters illegally consuming alcohol on the water.

“We don’t want to have to tell someone their loved one has died,” Van Norman said of the worst case scenario resulting from water accidents.

With the mandated safety gear, including life jackets for everyone on the boat, a bailer, working flashlight, 15-metre floating line and whistle, boaters can make each trip on the waters safer.

It’s equipment OPP marine officers check for when stopping a boat on the water. The equipment can be purchased in its own case for boaters to take with them on outings and store on the craft.

Van Norman also takes the time to explain the importance of having the equipment on board when she inspects a boat.

“Life jackets are a big issue,” she said of what she has found during her three years with the marine unit.

“A lot of people don’t wear them and you don’t have to, but people have them on board and should wear them.”

Wearing a life jacket means one less precaution boaters have to consider if an emergency occurs on the waters.

She said many of the boaters contend they don’t have to wear the jackets because they are good swimmers. Van Norman said the real danger faced by boaters who are forced into the water is fatigue from the cold water. After spending time on the boat and in the sun the temperature change when having to go in the water can be numbing.

“The life jacket is about $20 so it’s $20 to save your life,” she added during last week’s tour of Belwood Lake.

She also wants to ensure that life jackets worn by children are the right size.

“Kids with adult jackets – if they fell into the water it could pop right off,” she said.

A full ban on alcohol consumption on the water is also something marine officers look out for and advise boaters about. Alcohol was a factor in 42 per cent of the 18 boating fatalities investigated by the OPP across the province this season, according to recently released OPP statistics.

Van Norman, who grew up boating, said there was a mindset that condoned drinking on watercrafts.

“Drinking and boating people used to think it’s a part of the culture; you’re supposed to have a drink on the boat.”

That has changed, she added,  with stricter laws and more education about the dangers.

Boaters face the same charges if they are found to be intoxicated as they would in their vehicles on the road, including suspension of their  driver’s licence and various charges.

“Someone who is impaired on the water, it’s going to effect you a lot faster,” she said of the dangers should the person end up in the water or be operating a motorized boat.

“It’s zero tolerance for booze and (no) life jackets on our lakes,” Van Norman said of the four lakes patrolled by Wellington County OPP: Belwood, Conestogo, Guelph and Puslinch.

Fines vary depending on equipment missing from a boat, but for the lack of a life jacket the fine is $240 for the first missing jacket and an additional $200 for subsequent jackets not on board, depending on the number of occupants.

Van Norman said infractions can easily add up.

“You could have $800 in fines just like that,” she said.

The marine unit can be found on county waterways throughout the summer and early fall. They also attend fishing derbies and other water-related events.

Van Norman has been with the OPP for eight years and regularly is with the traffic unit. To become a marine officer she was required to take additional waterway training.

What she shares with her fellow marine officers is a commitment to ensuring people enjoy local waterways safely.