Memorial Day weekend kicks off summer for most people.
For local S.C. Department of Natural Resources Sgt. Michael Paul Thomas, it also signals the start of the summer boating season.
Thomas runs the Unit E branch of the DNR, which covers Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties. Responsible for the protection of the wildlife and the waterways in the area, part of his job entails educating and enforcing boater safety rules and regulations.
On Saturday, Thomas was at the Edgar Glenn boat landing on S.C. Highway 170, offering courtesy inspections and safety information as part of DNR's goal to keep the area waterways safe over the holiday weekend.
The courtesy inspections are an alternative to ones conducted on the water. Thomas and two DNR reserve officers checked for a number of items â€" proper lifejackets, working fire extinguishers, and current registrations and licenses, among other things.
After the inspection, the boat owner receives a form from DNR as proof of the examination. While the inspections were voluntary, finding and correcting safety issues before the boats enter the water could save owners a trip back to the landing to correct a problem. It could also save them a ticket.
"One of the things we check for is not only that a boat has enough lifejackets but that they are a proper fit for each person," he said. "If they aren't, sometimes we can provide them with some.... if we can't, we'll follow the boat back to the landing and the owner will have to make a trip up to Walmart."
Since Beaufort County is popular for both recreational boating and fishing, Thomas expected about an even split on the types of boats inspected.
Today, Thomas and crew will head to the Pinckney Island boat landing.
FOCUS ON SAFETY
Once the on-shore inspections were finished Saturday, the crew headed out on the water.
DNR had two boats out in northern Beaufort County -- a larger vessel for deeper water activity, and a mid-range boat for shallower water. Each can inspect anywhere from about 25 to 50 boats a day, depending on the traffic.
In addition to those routine inspections, officers look for reckless boating or those boating under the influence. They focus on high traffic areas.
"We're in essence a highway patrol for the water, so we focus on recreational safety during the holiday weekends," Thomas said. "There's been more compliance with boating under the influence laws recently. We've seen more designated drivers, which is great because we don't have to arrest anyone and take them to jail."
With just nine full-time officers to cover the four-county area, manpower is tight. That could change, thought, because DNR has four more officers either in training or ready to start it. The branch also uses part-time "reserve officers" to fill their ranks.
Phil Amsler and Frank Murphy are two of seven area reserve officers. Both are veterans of the force. Amsler has been an officer for 12 years, and said Murphy has been one for nearly 40.
Both also work full-time jobs. Murphy is a veterinarian in Beaufort, and Amsler works for a contractor that services schools in the area.
Amsler, a Beaufort resident since 1958, said he joined DNR after volunteering for an educational "take one, make one" program with the department. The program taught safe hunting practices to teens and students.
He took a 50-hour course and a test at the justice academy in Columbia to be certified as a reserve officer.
"I grew up on the water here, so it made sense," Amsler said. "It's a lot of work, but I do it because I like it."
While the manpower shortfall is manageable during most holiday weekends, larger events like July's Beaufort Water Festival require outside help. For that event, other DNR branches send units as part of a "saturation team" to patrol the water.
Thomas said he plans to put between 15 and 18 patrol boats in the water for the festival.
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.