Fish and Boat officers ensure safety along the rivers

John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Outdoors

This Fourth of July weekend, some Allegheny River boaters learned that independence does not mean absolute freedom on the water.

Saturday, while patrolling off the Point, law enforcement officers with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission issued warnings for minor infractions, wrote a few citations for safety violations and cruised the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers during a traditionally busy boating day.

Except for some crowding off the Point, river traffic was relatively light in the hours after noon.

At the invitation of Waterways Conservation Officer Mike Johnson, reporters hopped aboard one of the commission’s newest vessels, a 25-foot patrol craft, for a two-hour afternoon ride-along in the Pittsburgh Pool, 24 nautical miles of waterway pooled between the Emsworth Dam on the Ohio River, the Highland Park Dam seven miles up the Allegheny and the Braddock Dam 11 miles up the Monongahela. The patrol was part of a nationwide water safety initiative called Operation Dry Water.

Officer Johnson and fellow WCOs Matt Raetsch and Brandon Young stayed mostly in the “no wake zone.” As a water safety measure, on weekends and holidays boaters may not cause the formation of wakes from the Point to the West End Bridge on the Ohio, to the Veterans Bridge on the Allegheny and to the Fort Pitt Bridge on the Mon.

“Mostly in this area on busy boating days what we see are wake violations, safety violations and at night lighting violations,” said Officer Johnson. “We don’t see a lot of serious violations, but we’re sticklers when it comes to safety. Life jackets are a big thing because of the 11 boating deaths we had last year on the waters of the Commonwealth, all 11 were not wearing life jackets.”

Inside the cabin, Officer Johnson piloted the patrol boat while monitoring Coast Guard, municipal police and Fish and Boat radios. His crew kept lookout from the stern. The boat had cruised up the Allegheny for just a few minutes when they noticed “a fast mover” speeding toward them off the port bow.

At the sight of flashing lights, the 30-foot cabin cruiser slowed to a stop and Officer Johnson maneuvered alongside. Officers Raetsch and Young explained to the driver that her wake could cause a hazard for kayakers and boaters moored several deep along the riverside walls. They checked her registration, counted life jackets and other safety equipment and left her with a warning.


“That’s usually enough. We don’t call it in,” said Officer Johnson. “One warning and most people step into line. If we see them doing the same thing again, we’ll handle it differently.”

Fish and Boat WCOs have the same law enforcement authority as municipal police.

“In the seven years I’ve [worked in central Allegheny County] I have made arrests on various waterways of people who had outstanding warrants,” said Officer Johnson. “The original reason for the contact was always a relatively minor violation, then we found out there was a warrant for his arrest.”

He idled the boat in the waters off the public Sharpsburg Boat Ramp while a personal watercraft operator motored back to his moored boat to retrieve his Jet Ski registration. The man was given a temporary sticker and a warning. Officer Johnson pivoted the powerful patrol boat downstream, skimming the waves at 42 knots, or nearly 50 mph. Just upstream from the Veterans Bridge a small cruiser approached with a woman sunning herself in front of the center console.

“Bow riding. That’s really dangerous,” said Officer Johnson, as Officers Raetsch and Young held the boats together and talked with the driver. “It’s minor, but it’s the safety issue that we’re concerned with. If the driver should turn away and the person rolls off, she’s in the propellers in a second.”

The driver was issued a citation, which Officer Johnson said would result in a $75 fine.

No boating under the influence, collisions or disabled vessels. No “man overboard,” argumentative violators or caustic law enforcers. The ride-along was a pleasant boat ride on a pleasant summer day when families and friends relaxed more or less safely on Pittsburgh’s rivers.

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