Watching Over the Waters
As Sanibel Island is surrounded by some of the most inviting waters of the Gulf of Mexico, there’s hardly a day that the sun can set without one seeing a bevy of boaters cruising in coastal waters or out fishing for that prize catch. For one person, such marine activities are anything but a recreational pursuit, in fact, for Kenneth Sutton, it is a full-time job that comes anchored with a lot of responsibility. Sutton is Sanibel Island’s only full-time marine enforcement officer. He has served with the Sanibel Police Department since 2003, and on most days of the week, he can be seen patrolling among the canals or right off the coastline in an ongoing effort to ensure that all are adhering to safe boating practices.
Sutton comes from a family of fellow law enforcement professionals and he says that even as a young kid who grew-up in Cape Coral, he can recall being on the beach and watching marine officers pass by in various vessels – “And I always thought, that has to be the coolest job in the world.”
The “coolness” was emphasized during a ride-along on a day last week that came complemented with a teeth-chattering chill in the early morning winds and a heavy chop in the tides.
Like any devoted sailor, Sutton confesses a certain attraction and affection for the ocean, and he considers his job as being something in the fulfillment of a dream. He also acknowledge that for many, the ability to acquire a boat and head-out for the open sea can also be a matter of dream fulfillment, but those dreams can very quickly turn into a nightmare when one hasn’t taken the time to get educated.
“You wouldn’t drive a car without understanding how to operate it… or without understanding the rules of the highway, but when it comes to boats, some people start without even knowing what to do,” says Sutton.
Whereas license is required to operate most modes-of-transportation, at present, one can actually purchase or rent a craft and head for the open waters without undergoing any type of training in the nuances of navigation nor education as to boating factors specific to Sanibel.
For instance, Sutton notes that there are certain areas around the Island (such as that in the vicinity of McIntyre Creek) which can easily be traversed in a high tide, and tarpon fishermen or other boaters often wander into that area without realizing that they’ll be stranded in shallow water when the tide departs. This means that they’ll have to wait for either a tow or for the high tide to return.
Sutton also says boaters may not be readily aware how often manatees meander among the waters of Sanibel. Careless and speeding boaters pose more of a threat to this endangered species beyond anything else in the ocean.
A husband and a father of three children, Sutton says too often, he sees passengers on boats not wearing the necessary life preservers, or even worse -allowing children to sit with feet dangling from the foot of the bow. Sutton says one fall from that spot would quickly transform a pleasant boating experience into a parent’s worst nightmare.
For his part, Sutton says that he is more interested in providing education than writing citations. His presence on the open waters serves to deter those who would otherwise fail to follow proper boating rules, and when he pulls alongside a boat, it doesn’t necessarily mean one can expect a ticket, more often, one can expect a friendly reminder about boating rules. Of course, some get nervous, just like certain drivers do when they see the flashing lights of a patrol car in their rearview mirror.
Sutton recalls how one nervous operator of a wave runner accidentally ran into his craft after he had stopped the person for going too fast. “The operator just got nervous, gunned the wave runner accidentally… it happens,” says Sutton.
Most days in Sanibel are quiet and peaceful, and Sutton strives to keep it that way.
A recent television news report alleged that some 60 crab traps had been pilfered by an apparent crap-trap thief lurking among the waters of Sanibel. Sutton explains that if anyone had thought to speak to the police department, it would have been learned that rough winds had pushed those traps inland and onto area beaches where the majority were ultimately recovered by the department.
He says he doesn’t see a lot of crime, poor boating practices, yes, but not major criminal activity. In the course of fulfilling his duties, he’s observed some incredible things too. Sutton recalls one afternoon, he came upon a dolphin that was floating upon its back on the surface of the water. At first, he thought the creature was sick or injured, then to his surprise, he watched as a baby dolphin emerged from its mother’s womb. Mother and baby disappeared beneath the waves before he could even snap a picture, “but seeing something like that is something you never forget,” says Sutton.
He stops the boat at an area just off the shore of Sanibel’s Light House Beach and shares something else that he says he’ll never forget.
A year ago, Sutton arrived at this very spot after observing a crowd who had gathered on the beach. Moments earlier they had fetched a man out of the water who had gotten caught in the rip current after he attempted to go swimming. Unfortunately, that man died. Sutton has life saving equipment and skills that could have resulted in a different outcome. He has been trained to immediately respond to action in just such a case as this, but this time, events unfolded before he arrived. He has wondered how different it may have been had he only arrived minutes earlier. “You think about it,” says Sutton, “But you can’t beat yourself up thinking like that either.”
In this case, such experiences prompt him to stay mindful of the need for safety in Sanibel waters, boat or no boat.
Most of Sutton’s days are devoid of such drama, but that doesn’t mean the routines of the job don’t pose specific challenges. On this windy day, Sutton stood throughout the patrol, gripping the wheel as the boat bounced through the waves. Maintaining course made for something in the way of a physical workout. Of course, in the summer, there is heat and radiating sun light that keeps Sutton especially vigilant for skin cancer. As much as he enjoys being on the water, he says there are days when he comes home feeling exhausted. “I’ll lay down on the couch and fall asleep in the blink of an eye, then I’ll hear my wife say, ‘No, you get up now and help me cook dinner for the kids,’ and I do,” laughs Sutton, noting, in this case, he can take instruction as readily as he can give instruction to boaters.
With this being the tourist season in Sanibel, there are more cars on the road and more people on the beach as compared to other times of the year, and that can mean more boaters on the water. Sutton’s advice is for all to get familiar with area tides, buoy systems and safe boating practices. “Understand how to operate your boat, take time to learn about navigating in our waters, and follow required safety practices,” says Sutton. He explains such advice is not about making his job easier; it’s more about making life a little easier for all boaters in Sanibel.
When emergencies happen on the water, beyond the Sanibel Police, Coast Guard, and local branch of the United States Power Squadron, the Island is home to a unique auxiliary force whose very foundation may prove to become a fundamental model for how other communities throughout the world can function in the way of water safety. The Sanibel Emergency Response Assistance Team (SERAT) is the brainchild of Sanibel Fire/Rescue District Captain Tim Barrett and Jim Strothers, a retired engineer who transformed into an instructor on safe boating practices after relocating to Sanibel some years ago.
Strother explains how in the course of conducting classes with staff of the Fire District, he learned from Barrett, there were certain limitations as to this community’s readiness should some catastrophic event occur. For example, a major corridor for airliners is right over head. Should some calamity strike, leading to one of those aircrafts ditching in the sea (akin to that airliner of Hudson River fame), just how prepared is this community for response? In 2002, Strothers says that answer wouldn’t have been very positive. He and Barrett began an initiative that essentially involves the comprising of a volunteer force of mariners who stand ready to respond when emergencies strike. In operation for six years now, SERAT has more than $800,000 in assets, 30 volunteers and eight water craft (ranging from 18ft to 32ft in length). SERAT members are specially trained to provide assistance in a range of scenarios that include water search and rescue, patrols, and help in securing an area in the event of an emergency.
SERAT is a sanctioned arm of the local Power Squadron who mission is also to provide volunteer assistance in the event of emergencies, the two organizations work closely together. SERAT members undertake advanced courses affiliated with Power Squadron training and have developed an operating manual specific to needs of the Sanibel area.
They now have a national manual too. Strothers explains how he was invited to speak during a national board meeting of Power Squadron Commanders. At the time, they were looking to develop a program that would lead to great community involvement with the program as well as increased participation from boaters undertaking training. The SERAT initiative was determined to be the very model they were looking for. Today, Strothers makes appearances at Power Squadron meetings around the state and country explaining how the program works, and can work, in other communities.
Locally, SERAT has already provided assistance in events like the Kayak Races. Beyond the volunteer service of their water craft, that event made use of SERAT’s land-based portable radio system, thus saving county taxpayers the cost of operating the sheriff department’s mobile radio unit. They also helped when repairs were being made to the Causeway Bridge, advising boaters what areas to stay clear of during that process.
Strothers is patched in to the dispatch system and receives a message when emergencies happen. A SERAT unit can be deployed in approximately ten minutes where as the time it takes for, say, a unit of the Coast Guard Auxiliary may take up to an hour.
Strothers says many accidents that happen on the water would be avoided if boaters took the time to get properly trained. As a private boater, he says that he sees “idiots in the water all the time.” This includes people on wave runners trying to jump in the wake of boats, people getting stranded in shallow waters, or carelessly cruising in dive sites because they failed to recognize the floating dive flags. He encourages boaters to maintain awareness of current tide charts to avoid problems, but to also take the time to get trained in nautical operation. That education, he says, might not only help spare your boat from certain disaster, but help save a life too.
“Sooner or later, something will happen,” says Strothers, “And we’ll come and help just as we do, but take the training so that we never have to don’t to.”
To learn more about local boating safety programs, visit the Sanibel Captiva Sail and Power Squadron website at www.usps.org/localusps/sancap/ – for more details about SERAT, contact Jim Strothers by email ““mailto:SERAT@sanibelcaptivaSPS.org”>SERAT@sanibelcaptivaSPS.org” or phone (239)395-1856.