The blue lights started flashing as Deputy Drew Long took a sharp U-turn with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office boat in the open water of Lake Lanier.
Moments before, Long had spotted a moving boat with girls lying on the back, soaking up sun on the opening day of the unofficial boating season.
He sped up and steered over the choppy water toward the Cobalt, which slowed and came to as much of a stop as a boat can in the middle of Lanier on a Saturday.
Deputy Josh Bell, Long’s partner in patrol, greeted the boat’s driver as the two floated together.
Much like a traffic stop, the two exchanged information and Bell informed the driver of the violation.
Unlike speeding on a road or blowing a stop sign, however, the driver was unaware that he had been breaking a rule.
Bell explained that people can’t lie on the back of a moving boat because “in the wake, they could go bouncing off the back.”
The girls migrated to the front of the boat and the driver thanked the deputies for letting him know — and not issuing him a ticket.
“If we think a verbal warning will get them to comply, that’s what we’ll do,” said Bell, as the deputies continued on their patrol. “Most of what we’re doing is education.”
Typical stops include overloaded boats, any safety violations spotted and checks to ensure vessels have enough life jackets for everyone on board.
On May 25, the first day of the summer season, Long and Bell taught a lot of lessons. Those included stopping two personal watercraft that were traveling within 100 feet of each other to let them know that’s too close.
“I don’t think we would have gotten any farther with those guys if we wrote them a ticket,” Bell said. “It’s the first day of summer. They’ll see us all summer.”
“That doesn’t mean we won’t write tickets. It’s on a case-by-case basis.”
Some of the more dangerous or “common sense” violations will almost always lead to a citation, he said.
A boater who had a 7-year-old child without a life jacket was one such violation.
The law recently changed to require anyone 13 and younger to wear a preserver in a moving boat, Long said. But even before the modification was increased from age 10, the boy was too young.
Another recent change lowered the legal blood alcohol content for boaters to .08, which is the same as on roads.
The deputies conduct an evaluation if they suspect a drunk boat operator, just like on land.
If an arrest is made, people are taken to a dock for pickup, Bell said, but they aren’t handcuffed, in case they fell into the water.
Unlike driving a car, boat or personal watercraft operators don’t need a license to drive on the water if they are older than 16.
The deputies pay particular attention to the watercraft, he said, since a majority of accidents seem to involve them and the drivers often are young people with less experience.
“There’s no speed limit on the lake,” Long said, “so you’ve just got to make sure you operate safely.”
Deputies Bell and Long operate one of two sheriff’s office boats in the summer months. For the rest of the year, the two each work at a high school as a school resource officer.
Like at the schools, the deputies get to be a friendly and familiar presence on the water, as they wave at passing boaters and inform people about the laws.
“Rarely do you meet anybody on the lake who will give you a hard time,” Bell said.