Mercer Island Police keep a close eye on Seafair

Young sailors perfect their technique in a class off Luther Burbank Park last Friday. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Young sailors perfect their technique in a class off Luther Burbank Park last Friday.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

This weekend, thousands of Seafair revelers will swarm the beaches of Lake Washington, while boaters ride the lake’s buoyant waves. From Mercer Island to Leschi to Seward Park, Blue Angels will soar above, hydroplanes below. Seattle’s iconic summer festival has arrived.

But along with all the fun and revelry comes risk. Mercer Island police will tell you that Seafair is, by far, their busiest weekend of the year. The marine patrol, especially, has the demanding task of navigating Lake Washington’s bumper-boat crowd, on the look-out for negligent driving, excessive drinking and potentially dangerous scenarios.

“It’s full force. The entire police department works over Seafair. Nobody has time off,” said MIPD Sergeant Keith McDonough, who is in charge of the Seafair marine unit.

The majority of problems during Seafair come down to two factors: boaters and alcohol. With hundreds of vessels — many packed with people and flowing with beer — idling between the shores of Seattle and Mercer Island, the margin for accidents is high. The number of Boating Under the Influence (BUI) citations during Seafairs past speaks volumes.

According to MIPD statistics, there were 132 BUI arrests in 2006, followed by 155 in 2007 and 83 last year. Although these numbers are high, the positive news is that they are

dropping. According to McDonough, this is due to increased media efforts that warn Seafair participants about the dangers of drinking and boating.

“That huge drop-off [from 155 BUIs in 2007 to 83 in 2008] is because people are finally getting the message that they need a designated [boat] operator,” McDonough said. “There’s been a huge media effort in the past four years to get the word out. I think it’s just taken that long for people to pay attention.”

Working closely with the King County and Seattle police departments, the MIPD devotes all of its resources to the Seafair festival. Starting on the Thursday before Seafair, when the U.S. Navy Blue Angels air team begins practicing, the police and marine patrol begin their three-day presence.

All three of the Mercer Island Marine Patrol vessels are deployed, with several officers aboard. The State Department of Fish and Wildlife sends four boats and BUI enforcement crew to join this fleet.

Meanwhile, officers patrol the Island and its beaches by vehicle, bicycle and foot.

Seafair revelers who are caught breaking laws — alcohol-related or otherwise — are given little lenience.

“We’re enforcing a zero tolerance policy for PFD [personal flotation device] violations,” McDonough said, referring to state laws on life vest requirements.

According to King County law, youth under age 12 are required to wear a life vest at all times. Those older can go without, as long as there are “wearable PFDs immediately available for use.” There must be one PFD per person aboard. Violators pay a $66 infraction.

Drinking while operating a boat, of course, is another zero-tolerance area.

For the sixth year in a row now, the Washington State Patrol will bring a Mobile BUI and DUI unit to Mercer Island for Seafair. The station, which is where police write up and process offenders, is located at Proctor Landing. The park will be closed this year to the public while it serves as the MIPD’s operating and emergency station.

Other East Seattle beaches, such as Calkins Landing and Garfield Landing, will be open to the public.

Although serious water accidents during Seafair are rare, they do occur.

Last year, the MIPD recorded one near-fatal accident: a youth was hit by a boat propeller. Alcohol was involved, according to McDonough. Increased police presence in the last 10 years has helped to avoid drownings and other fatal accidents.

“We’ve seen a huge decrease in the number of fatalities since we started a joint effort with state patrol,” McDonough said. “Years ago, you’d go from one crash to another. Serious drownings were common. Over the past four years, though, there’s been a huge drop.”

Again, this is due to cracking down on drinking and boating, the sergeant said.

Other unsafe situations which boaters need to be wary of include overcrowded boats, choppy waters and what could be a beating head.

“It’s forecasted to be in the mid-80s every day. People need to watch the way that the sun affects them. People who drink alcohol may get easily dehydrated. They get intoxicated easier, too, from the heat and the sun,” McDonough said. “On the water, if there are too many passengers in the back of a boat, carbon monoxide poisoning can be an issue. People in small boats often don’t pay attention to the boat chop, so the boats are prone to flooding.”

Caution should also be taken on land, as well.

MIPD Operations Commander Dave Jokinen warns Islanders to be vigilant with their personal belongings. Residents who live near the Seafair festivities — in the East Seattle neighborhood or near the Roanoke — should make sure to lock their cars and close their garage doors.

Visitors should keep their cars locked and valuables stored out of sight as “crimes of opportunity” are more prevalent during Seafair.

“There are a lot of people vising the Island. If you live in areas where people tend to flood too, such as East Seattle or near the Lid, and you leave your garage door open or purse visible in a car, crimes of opportunity do happen,” said Jokinen.

The operations commander also reminded visitors to heed “No Parking” signs during Seafair. The signs are traditionally set up along West and North Mercer ways, along S.E. 24th Street and S.E. 40th Street, and in other heavily trafficked areas. MIPD support officers will be vigilant in issuing citations.

“Our biggest concern is keeping areas open for emergency vehicle access,” Jokinen said, reminding residents that the 1-90 bridges will be closed on and off this weekend for the Blue Angels. “Be patient with traffic. Try to think of alternative routes through the downtown area.”

Yet more importantly, Jokinen said, Islanders should remember to enjoy the weekend and have fun. After all, that is what Seafair is all about.

For more on Seafair, check out the Mercer Island Reporter's Seafair information page.

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