Hennepin County Water Patrol Unit Promotes Safe Boating

Water Patrol members help local kids learn how to be safe on the lake.

Joseph Martin cruises Lake Minnetonka to help keep boaters safe. Equipped with binoculars and a hand-held radar gun, Martin motors through the lake’s maze of channels and bays in one of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Water Patrol Unit boats.

“When we see someone acting foolishly, running through the channels at high speeds, we don’t always need binoculars for that,” Martin says.

Martin is one of 25 to 30 civilian volunteers, called special deputies, who help sheriff’s deputies patrol more than 100 lakes and three rivers in the county. Ninety percent of the water patrol unit’s workload is on Lake Minnetonka. Martin is a Bloomington salesman who’s been a special deputy for 27 years. He says playing a role in making the lake safer is rewarding.

 Volunteers boost manpower when the lake is busiest: weekends and holidays. Though unarmed, special deputies can issue warnings and citations. Mostly, volunteers and sheriff’s deputies offer boaters guidance on safely navigating the lake. “In my experience, most people thank you for being there,” says Martin, who volunteers all year long. “You stop, work with them, you explain something to them. They appreciate your presence and what you do.”

On the Job

Working on the lake in summer seems like a dream job. But patrolling Lake Minnetonka is nothing like Baywatch. “No, it’s not glamorous,” laughs Alan Lange, a deputy sheriff with the water patrol unit. It’s a job with challenges. And July is the busiest month on Lake Minnetonka.

Deputies and volunteers respond to tragic and minor events—from drownings, near-drownings and watercraft accidents to helping a boater who’s run out of gas. They also watch for safety perils such as boating while intoxicated (BWI), speeding, wake violations, underage drinking, water skiers without spotters and children under 10 not wearing life vests (as required by law).

 “We would prefer to educate the people rather than to slap a ticket on, and most people are receptive to that,” Lange says. But they are uncompromising on alcohol-related infractions.

Three people drowned in 2016; all three had alcohol in their system. Fifty-four tickets for BWIs were issued last year, or about three-quarters of the BWIs in the entire state. “Alcohol and boating, they don’t mix; [it’s] just like driving a car under the influence,” Lange says. “If you come to the lake and plan on partaking, just plan on having someone to drive your boat home for you.”

The Fourth of July attracts a tidal wave of revelers, especially to Cruiser’s Cove next to Big Island. Deputies cruise public safety lanes to spot underage drinking or littering. Last year, increased enforcement led to 101 tickets for underage consumption.

But Cruiser’s Cove is just one area of a large lake. “Associates of mine say, ‘I don’t want to go out on Lake Minnetonka; that’s just nuts,’ ” Martin says. “That’s because the people they’ve talked to are the ones going out to drink beer on Big Island. And the rest of that jewel is a beautiful lake. You can get on your boat on a busy Sunday and not be bothered at all.”

Martin enjoys the work even when “you think you’re going home at 2 a.m. and suddenly you get a call of some boater stuck out there,” he says. “It’s rewarding to help.”

Want to Help?

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office is always in need of more special deputies—who do more than water patrol. About 125 volunteers all over the county help with water and road support, mounted patrol and communication and radio technology. Tasks include crime scene support, traffic and crowd control. In all, special volunteers worked about 23,400 hours last year.

Hennepin County offers a reserve school twice a year for special deputies and reserve officers throughout the county. For more information, visit the website here.