After more than 30 years of service, the Olympia Harbor Patrol’s voyage is coming to an end this spring.
Funding has dried up for the patrol, which monitors Budd Inlet for safety hazards. The program’s 23 volunteers clear debris and maintain buoys in the water, but also respond to fires or search for bodies.
Sometimes the patrol encounters life-or-death scenarios.
Nick Kirchoff, a patrol commander, said the harbor is like another neighborhood of the city where people live, work and play. In his four years as a volunteer, Kirchoff has seen enough to know the patrol is necessary — whether that means reminding boaters to wear life preservers, or helping paddleboarders who get swept away by the currents in water that averages 50 degrees.
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“I’ve pulled people out of the water who were almost hypothermic,” said Kirchoff, referring to the life-threatening medical condition where the body’s temperature drops.
In November, volunteers helped rescue a kayaker who almost drowned after his dry suit had filled with water. The man told the patrol he was a Wounded Warrior who had served in Iraq.
Theresa Madden was one of the volunteers who helped pull the kayaker out of the cold Puget Sound. She said it took the crew just five minutes to reach the man near the northern tip of the peninsula, and it wouldn’t have taken long — perhaps 18 minutes or so — for him to develop hypothermia.
“We were able to get him to the medics, and he just wanted to go home,” she said.
Madden is an experienced skipper who joined the Olympia Harbor Patrol about three years ago to keep her boating skills sharp. The patrol is crucial for enforcing safety and compliance among boaters in the area, she said.
“A lot of people don’t know the laws of anchoring. If we’re not out there, you could have a line of derelict boats anchored off Percival Landing,” she said, citing one possible consequence of losing the patrol. “All summer long, there are boats out there anchored. They know we’re checking on them.”
The patrol is a program of the Olympia Police Department that evolved from the Sea Scout explorer group established in the 1970s.
The annual budget of about $30,000 goes primarily toward fuel and maintenance for the patrol’s 28-foot Almar boat, which is moored at Swantown Marina. The boat is stocked with medical supplies, dry suits and wool blankets, as well as plenty of booklets about boating regulations.
Olympia Police Lt. Paul Lower said the program would cease at the end of March. The lack of a stable funding source is the biggest obstacle for the Harbor Patrol, which has relied on a state parks grant to keep afloat. The city must reapply for that money year after year, Lower said.
To qualify for the grant, the patrol must also staff the boat with a fully commissioned officer. However, the police department is unable to meet that condition, Lower said. Last year, the program relied on city money that originally had been set aside for boating education, and some of that money went toward engine repairs on the patrol boat, he said.
“If something big happened on that boat and that money was used, we’d be back in the same place we are now,” Lower said. “It’s hard to operate a program such as this without any long-term funding.”
The patrol maintains regular weekend shifts, although volunteers stay on call 24-7 during the week in case of any emergencies. The patrol assists other entities such as the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, and provides search and rescue aid as far north as Anderson Island.
Over the course of the year, the patrol handles around 15 to 20 search and rescue situations, said Jim Broman, who is one of four commanders. He sympathizes with the city’s financial challenges, but said the program fills a local void.
“We’ve been present so long,” Broman said. “When you take that presence away, you’ll begin to have problems.”