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Safety first on water

Last updated 05:00 16/01/2013
GArry Larsen

WATER COP: Police coastal master Garry Larsen.

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Auckland is surrounded by water and at any one time there could be hundreds of thousands of people at work or play on it. Reporter Emma Whittaker spent a day with the police unit tasked with keeping our waterways under control.

Mayday, mayday, mayday.

The call sign that comes over the radio means someone's life is in danger and they need help now.

A boat could be on fire in the harbour or about to sink. Any vessels close to the situation will be heading in to give the distressed boatie a hand.

At the Auckland Police Maritime Unit's base in Mechanics Bay people rush to get their gear together.

Senior launch master Marty Renouf only just makes it down the jetty to the boat when another message comes through. The boatie has broken down close to an inner harbour island - he's fine.

The feeling onboard our patrol boat is a mixture of relief and frustration. The distress call is a massive over-reaction, explains police coastal master Garry Larsen.

Our response is called off.

The Coastguard will instead head out and check on the situation.

"That's why education is important," Mr Larsen says.

"Anyone can go out and buy a boat without any kind of qualification, but there are so many different risks and rules involved. I would encourage people to get an education first," he says.

Police have patrolled Auckland's waters since the 1840s but in 1959 the government realised a purpose-built police launch was needed in the city.

Over budget and six months late, the Deodar was launched in November 1960. It got its name from the police minister at the time who had served on a mine sweeper called HMS Deodar during WWII.

The current launch Deodar III is an 18.5 metre, state-of the-art catamaran, capable of reaching a speed of up to 43 knots (79.55kmh).

"We're basically a police car on water," Mr Larsen says. "We do everything that land staff do, but where it is related to the water."

A lot of the unit's time is taken up with search and rescue work and training with other organisations. The unit is also responsible for enforcing fishery laws.

Deodar III is out of the water for maintenance so we're spending the day on one of the unit's two 12-metre rigid hulled inflatable boats (RHIBs).

Eleven RHIBs were brought in by police for the America's Cup in 2000 and three are still in service.

Our first stop for the day is the Viaduct Harbour where a water taxi was broken into overnight. It's been trashed and some flares have been stolen.

Break-ins and boat thefts are fairly common, Mr Larsen says.

To keep track of the situation the maritime unit runs a database of stolen boats.

"A lot of them are stolen to order. A lot aren't recovered," he says. "If people see boats being towed at funny hours of the night or anything they should give police a call."

The taxi has been taken out to sea by its owner since the break-in so there isn't much point in police going through it for evidence.

Marina staff will check over CCTV footage from the night, Mr Larsen says.

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The rest of the afternoon is spent doing a routine patrol.

There is no legal limit on the amount of alcohol a person can have in their system when they are driving a boat so the unit doesn't routinely breath-test boaties. Mainly we're checking to see that people have lifejackets.

Mr Larsen recalls an incident in November where two men drowned when their vessel tipped over near Waiheke Island after a sea sick passenger changed positions. There had been seven people aboard the 4.9 metre boat and no lifejackets.

- East And Bays Courier

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