McHenry County Sheriff Marine Unit sees calmer waters in recent years

Joe Marvin has patrolled the Fox River for six years, but in the past three there has been less to see.

Boat traffic on the Fox River in McHenry County is poised to fall for a third consecutive year and might fail to reach double digits. Boat traffic was measured at 12,925 boats in 2011; 11,244 in 2012; and 10,070 last year.

The boating numbers are tracked as boats that go through the Stratton-Bolger Lock and Dam in McHenry, meaning the totals could include repeat visitors.

As of Monday, Marvin said traffic this season has been considerably low at 3,760 boats.

“The traffic on the waterway has certainly been down over the last year and has been somewhat on a downswing for the last several years,” said Marvin, commander of the McHenry County Sheriff Marine Unit. “But the last couple weekends have had pretty nice weather, so it should get busier.”

The McHenry County Sheriff Marine Unit consists of 16 officers and five boats that patrol the river from mid-May through the end of October. Its jurisdiction stretches from the Algonquin Dam north to the middle of Pistakee Lake before jurisdiction turns over to Lake County, where the more active portion of the Chain O’ Lakes is located, Marvin said.

Patrolling shifts generally run eight hours and can require as few as two of the two-men boats or all five during the busiest times.

No matter how many boaters are on the water, it can be difficult to make sure everyone is following the law, Marvin said. The main areas of focus this year have been on life vests and moving violations, specifically when it comes to passengers sitting on the edge of boats and water skiers who do not have an observer.

Marvin said each boat must have a certain number of life vests on board, and children age 13 and younger must wear one at all times on the water. He said there also has been a growing problem of people sitting on the edge or rear of the boat while it’s moving and people water skiing with only the driver and skier and not the required third person to see whether and how the skier falls.

“There are situations, particularly with not having observers, where people know they need one but disregard it because they didn’t have a third person to come out with them,” Marvin said. “But there are situations, too, where there are brand new boaters on the water and not necessarily aware of the rules.”

Even with decreased traffic, the marine unit needs to be ready to respond to major incidents, such as the search and rescue effort for William Trybula, who drowned in Pistakee Lake on June 8. While more specialized rescue crews are equipped for those events, Marvin said his crew still could be needed in addition to responding to smaller incidents.

This year, he said officers have responded to a woman slipping and hitting her head on the boat deck, a boat crashing into a shore station and a boat getting stuck under the Algonquin bridge.

“All these officers are experienced police officers that spent many years on the street and know how to respond to emergencies and enforce laws,” Marvin said. “ But there is certainly a difference between being on the street and being in a boat in the water. Our primary objective here is to make sure everyone is having a safe and enjoyable time.”

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