The Coast Guard radio call came in at about 6 p.m. Saturday. An unidentified boat with its lights off was heading for the Port of Oakland.
Officer Ed Galvan of the Berkeley Police Department didn’t hesitate. In seconds he had Police-One, a 26-foot rescue and patrol boat, going 45 mph, darting through tame tides underneath the Bay Bridge.
The Port of Oakland is a prime target for terrorists, explained Sgt. Guy Craig, as he grabbed hold of a post on the open-air boat, the wind whipping against his face.
Within minutes he spotted the boat – a million-dollar yacht christened Chardonnay – sloppily traversing a narrow corridor between a barge and a freighter.
Galvan flashed the blue police light, then a spotlight.
Finally after several minutes, out stepped the captain. Bearing a striking resemblance to Governor Gray Davis, he asked if there was problem.
“You need to turn your lights on,” scolded Galvan.
The lights went on, but the police were not amused. “That guy didn’t have a clue,” Galvan said. “He could have really messed up his boat.”
Messed up boats are something Craig and Galvan know all too much about. If a vessel is in distress anywhere in the bay Wednesday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., the BPD – not the Coast Guard – will likely handle the call.
The BPD maritime program started in 1997 after the Coast Guard alerted local cities that budget cuts meant they would have to police their own waters. To start the program, the BPD was given one boat by the Coast Guard and bought a second one via a state grant.
The BPD cooperates with other Bay Area cities, including Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond and Redwood City, with each city taking a shift to make sure the bay is constantly patrolled.
Most of the maritime officers’ work is similar to that performed by regular traffic police. They make sure that boaters keep their lights on in the dark, look out for drunk captains, and enforce the rules of the sea. But about four times per month they are called upon to perform rescue missions.
The most harrowing rescue came last year, when the Coast Guard asked them to come to the aid of 42-foot boat that was taking on water underneath the Bay Bridge. Within 30 seconds after they got the sailors onto the rescue boat, the distressed boat sunk.
“They were going to die,” Craig said.
Their most recent rescue was just as timely but far more strange.
Last month, a woman, in an apparently drug-induced furor, jumped out of her boyfriend’s car on West Frontage Road, threw off her clothes and started swimming in the bay. At temperatures that average about 53 degrees and can result in death within a couple of hours, the woman had been in the bay for about 30 minutes and would likely have swum to her death if not for Craig and Galvan.
“We drove up next to her, and I reached down got a big clump of hair and lifted her into the boat,” Craig recalled. The woman was treated at a local hospital.
If a rescue is their most rewarding task, recovering dead bodies is their most sobering. At one point Saturday, Galvan flashed the spotlight into the water thinking he had seen human remains. A man thrown overboard from a party boat last Saturday night in the waters off Hunter’s Point is still missing, and his body could now be anywhere in the bay floating close to the surface.
The spotlight did not reveal a body on this occasion, but Craig estimated that they recover about two bodies a year.
The officers also patrol the bay for fish poachers and serve as the region’s first line of defense against suspicious boats that terrorists might use to target either the Oakland port or the Richmond oil refinery.
Galvan also serves as patrol officer for the Berkeley Marina, keeping watch over the restaurants and the residents of floating homes. He said marina residents tend to more friendly and more willing to compromise with neighbors than resitents of typical Berkeley beats. “A lot of [police officers] think we have it easy and we have the best job on the force,” he said.
“Well they’re wrong on the first part – it’s hard work, but it is definetely the best job on the force.”
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