caption: Officer Robert Varga poses with one of the patrol boats.

As the summer heat creeps in and people head to the waterways surrounding our neighborhood, The Southwester staff asked me to look into those who keep us safe. These unknown heroes are the DC Harbor Patrol, and they are right here in the neighborhood.

Over Memorial Day weekend I had the unique opportunity of going for a ride-along with the DC Harbor Patrol. Like many DC residents, I was initially unaware that DC even has a Harbor Patrol, let alone that the Patrol is headquartered in Southwest DC; however this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The District has approximately 26 miles of waterways, and Southwest, located at the nexus of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, is a prime location for the Harbor Patrol to launch. I met with Officer Robert Varga, a newer member of the Patrol, to understand the team’s mission, familiarize myself with their capabilities, and, most importantly, to educate our readers on boater safety now that summer is finally here.

The Harbor Patrol headquarters is a nondescript, beige building tucked away at 550 Water Street SW. The 20-member team is responsible for patrolling all the lakes and rivers in the District. The team patrols as far south as Quantico and as far north as Little Falls. It seems like a lot of ground to cover for 20 officers, but as Officer Varga told me, “We are well equipped and well trained.” Apart from the two helicopters, an air boat, jet skis, and a tactical command boat that can coordinate any type of large scale operation from the water, the DC Harbor Patrol also has in its arsenal a half-dozen rigid-hulled inflatable boats. A combination raft and speed boat, these inflatable boats are the Harbor Patrol’s workhorses and the most likely for you to see on waterway. And boy, were they impressive! I put on my life-preserver, hopped aboard Officer Varga’s cruiser, and we were off.

After getting past the no-wake zone, which covers most of the water in and around the heavily trafficked areas of DC, Officer Varga showed me his cruiser’s capabilities.

“Hold on tight!” he yelled. I grabbed on to the bar behind the driver’s seat. Officer Varga pushed the throttle forward. We were at the boat’s top speed, 60 mph, in a matter of seconds. My knuckles were white while the wind whipped my face as we cruised over big wakes. Demonstrating its handling, Officer Varga made a tight turn. The boat listed what felt like 90 degrees and we were practically horizontal to the water. This did not feel like a boat, but more like a race car. Entering the no-wake zone near Old Town Alexandria, Officer Varga demonstrated the boat’s equally impressive stopping power as it stopped on a dime. But, being on top of the water is only half of the story.

The members of the DC Harbor Patrol are highly trained police officers. Apart from ensuring boater safety, all members of the Patrol are certified divers. A major aspect of the job is diving through the murky depths, up to 35 feet in some parts, of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers to conduct rescue operations and recover contraband, weapons, and, in some cases, bodies for use in police investigations. For the divers, the visibility below is practically zero. Although their patrol boats are outfitted with the latest GPS and sonar technologies, which, according to Officer Varga, “have the capability to find a knife at the bottom of the Potomac,” their sonars can only clue them in to the general location. The divers are still forced to use touch, feeling around the bottom of the riverbed, to recover exactly what they are looking for. I asked Officer Varga if there is any trepidation when he dives, especially when he first joined the Patrol.

He replied, “It’s a mission. You go into professional mode.”

As we made our way back to Harbor Patrol headquarters, I asked Officer Varga if he had any parting tips, recommendations, or requests for the boating public now that the summer had officially begun.

“The boating public is quite respectful,” he stated. “One of the reasons I joined the Patrol was to have a positive relationship with the public and to educate people on boater safety.” With that being said, Officer Varga warned against boating under the influence. Little did I know, it carries the same penalties as a DUI. If caught, your boat will be towed to shore, and you will be arrested.

The biggest takeaway from this memorable day: safety. Make sure you have the proper safety equipment for yourself and all passengers aboard. Be licensed and registered. Operating a boat is no different from operating a vehicle in the District. Most importantly, according to Officer Varga, “Wear a lifejacket!”

The DC Harbor Patrol is located at 550 Water St. SW. A Boating Safety Certificate is required for vessels operating in DC. Boating safety courses are offered by the DC Harbor Patrol on most Saturdays. Check their website (http://mpdc.dc.gov/node/204112) for class schedules and to register. The cost is free, the certificate never expires, and it can be transferred to most jurisdictions in the country.

By: Max Gruber

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