Ready to launch
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 must 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 and to the boat when another message comes through.
The boatie has broken down close to an inner harbour island and 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.’’
Police have patrolled Auckland’s waters since the 1840s but in 1959 the government realised a purposebuilt 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 World War II.
The present 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.
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 of the RHIBs were bought by police to be used during the 2000 America’s Cup 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 aren’t uncommon, 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,’’ 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.
The rest of the afternoon is spent doing a routine patrol on the harbour.
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 breathtest sailors.
‘‘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. There were seven people aboard the 4.9 metre boat and no lifejackets.
The case was well publicised in the media.
‘‘We were out on the water the week after that and we are still getting people without lifejackets. A common argument we get is ‘it’s a calm day’, ‘we’re close to land’ and ‘I’m a good swimmer’.
‘‘You still need to wear a lifejacket though – you could be knocked on the head, or in the water for a while.’’
Although the water is calm, the current around us is still reasonably strong and is mov- ing at 3 knots (5.5kmh).
‘‘If you were to fall in you would start travelling away from the boat at that speed,’’ Mr Larsen says. ‘‘It would take those on your boat at least six or seven minutes to get the anchor up, turn around, and come and get you.
‘‘We have had plenty of experiences where someone has fallen off the back of a boat and by the time people get to them they are dead.’’
Mr Larsen has been with the maritime unit for more than 12 years.
He came to it from a back- ground in rural policing in Waiuku.
‘‘There are a lot of different challenges to maritime policing but our role in some ways is more varied than it would be on land. ‘I just enjoy the type of work and the people you come across. Most people on the water are just good people out to enjoy what New Zealand has to offer,’’ he says.
Water cop: Police coastal master Garry Larsen.
Number one: Police launch Deodar III.
Important lesson: Senior launch master Marty Renouf explains the importance of wearing lifejackets to a boat load of young people who don’t have enough for everyone on board.
The backup: The Auckland Police Maritime Unit’s inflatable RHIB that stands in for Deodar III.