Thanks to the United States Department of Homeland Security, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Law Enforcement Division now has five new Great Lakes patrol boats.
Chief Gary Hagler, who heads up the DNR's Law Enforcement Division, said the department applied for, and received, federal Port Security Grants to purchase four 25-foot and one 27-foot aluminum-hulled vessels for use around Great Lakes ports. The 25-footers have been deployed at Muskegon, Sault Ste. Marie, Port Huron and Marine City, while the 27-foot craft is docked in Marquette.
The walk-around-cabin boats - built by SAFE Boats International (SAFE) of Port Orchard, Wash. - feature hand-welded aluminum hulls and fabric-covered, positive-flotation foam sponsons (to increase lateral stability in the water). They were custom-built to DNR specifications after the grants were awarded in 2010 and 2011.
"These boats will be used for port security, maritime law enforcement patrols and rescues on the Great Lakes," Hagler explained.
"You might think you're doing a regular check of a fishing vessel or a maritime safety check, but once you get out there you find other sorts of clandestine activity - boats that are smuggling illegal contraband or human trafficking," said the DNR's Sgt. John Meka. "On everyday patrols, we're looking for these activities."
Meka, who wrote the design specifications for the vessels, said he conferred with other federal and state agencies on the boats before he ordered them from SAFE (an acronym for Secure All-around Flotation Equipped) Boats, after contacting 40 different manufacturers. He, along with veteran DNR conservation officer Danny Walzak, went to Puget Sound to inspect and run the boats before they were delivered to Michigan.
"They're beautiful boats," Walzak said. "I've been dreaming of these boats ever since the Coast Guard got them. I'm very glad we have them and very happy for the guys who are going to use them."
The boats feature insulated cabins that can be accessed from port, starboard and aft. That's an important feature for officers who, when patrolling alone, may need to move quickly in a rescue situation. The walk-around-cabin design allows the officers to move around the boat without having to climb up on the sponsons.
The cabin itself is a comfort and safety upgrade over the open boats that most conservation officers use.
"I'm excited," said DNR conservation officer Ben Lasher, who will use one of the boats in St. Clair County. "This is the Cadillac of work boats; I've never had a boat this size or this nice."
Lasher, who has been patrolling in an 18-foot open boat, said the new craft will make him more effective.
"It's nice to have equipment you can use a longer period of the year," he said. "With this boat, I can work on the water eight to 10 months of the year as opposed to only six."
DNR conservation officer Ken Kovach, who took one of the boats on its maiden voyage on the St. Clair River and Lake Huron on a blustery day, said he had a good impression of the rig before he actually experienced it. After the trip, Kovach's opinion was even higher.
"I love it," he said. "It's more than what I thought it would be. I'm impressed."
The rigs feature the latest in electronics and communication equipment. The boats are outfitted with climate-control systems, night-vision devices, side-scan sonar, forward-looking infrared radar and military-grade automatic identification units. Even the seats (made by Shoxs) have been upgraded for comfort to reduce the fatigue often associated with operating in rough water.
"They're easier on the crew so they won't take a pounding all the time and they won't have the lower-back problems and fatigue," Meka said. "These boats go well through rough seas and make it easier for the crew to stay on the water longer and in worse weather."
The 25-foot boats are outfitted with twin 250-horspower Evinrude E-Tec outboards and have a top speed of 46 knots. The 27-footer boasts twin 300 Evinrudes. The boats cost an average of $275,000 each.
"It's a good response boat," Meka said. "It's the boat we need for Great Lakes patrol."
Added Walzak: "It's amazing what these boats will handle; plus, you're protected by the cabin."
The good news didn't stop with the five new boats. The DNR also received federal grant money to upgrade the electronics and communication devices on two existing boats - a 25-footer in Monroe and a 40-footer in Menominee - as well as to purchase an airboat for use in southeastern Michigan.
"Getting this support from the Department of Homeland Security has been an amazing boost to the DNR's efforts to better patrol our Great Lakes ports and protect the safety of our residents who enjoy these waters," said Hagler.
Patrolling the Great Lakes is just one of the many responsibilities tackled every day by Michigan's conservation officers. These sturdier, speedier, grant-funded boats will have far-reaching effects on officers' safety, comfort and overall effectiveness on the waters.
That's a plus for every resident or visitor who ventures out onto the Great Lakes, no matter the season.
To learn more about the products and programs of SAFE Boats International, visit www.safeboats.com
. To learn more about the hard work of becoming and serving as a conservation officer with the Michigan DNR, visit www.michigan.gov/conservationofficers