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Patrols gear up to spot drunken boaters

A Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau police boat

A Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau police boat cuts through the water as it operates in the Great South Bay. (July 1, 2012) Credit: Newsday/ Thomas A. Ferrara

The patrol boat cruising the waters of the Great South Bay near Ocean Beach approached an anchored recreational boat. The half-dozen people aboard were enjoying cocktails.

When the officers came into view, the partyers dumped their drinks overboard.

Suffolk County Marine Bureau officers Lt. Tom Martorano and Sgt. Dave Cherkes are cracking down on drunken boating, but that's not the response they were looking for.

"It's not against the law to be drinking a beer on your boat," Martorano said, recalling the recent encounter. "The public's perception is 'we can't drink on the water' and that isn't so. It's like anywhere else. You cannot be intoxicated and operate the vessel, because then you put everyone in danger."

On a recent Saturday, officers from the Highway Patrol's Safety Team came aboard to help Marine Bureau officers catch intoxicated boaters. Safety team officers are experts at spotting drivers under the influence, so their expertise is now being used on the water.

But before they could help, the standard field sobriety tests had to be modified, said Insp. Stuart Cameron. Sobriety tests that require checking for balance are not easy to do on a bobbing boat. An alternative is the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, observing how a person's eyes track a moving object such as a pen. Martorano and Cherkes issued no citations during that daylong patrol along the South Shore. Most encounters were friendly, with the officers waving back at appreciative boaters as Cherkes, who was navigating, kept a sharp eye on boaters, checking for anything out of the ordinary.

Spotting an intoxicated boater is a challenge, the officers said. There are no double-yellow lines on the water, and sometimes it's hard to gauge if a boater is going too fast or too slow.

"People would argue with us, but it's a lot harder than being on the road," said Martorano, a 34-year police veteran.

That's where probable cause comes in. The officers look for expired registration stickers, improperly anchored boats, and children placed on the bows of boats or not wearing life vests -- anything that would prompt interaction with the operator of the boat.

That's when they can tell if the driver is impaired, said Cherkes, a Suffolk officer for 20 years.

"We certainly know," he said. "You can tell when" someone's eyes are bloodshot.

Last month, an inspection on a boat prompted two BWI arrests: the man standing at the controls, then the real operator, who was outed by passengers.

As of Friday, Marine Bureau officers have made seven boating-while-intoxicated arrests, including one involving a fatality -- as many as all of last year.

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