Recruits from the N.C. Wildlife Commission Enforcement Division spent much of last week on powerboats at White Lake.
But unlike the pleasure boaters, fishermen and water skiers frequenting the lake, the Wildlife officer-trainees were all business.
The prospective officers, under the supervision of Sgt. Conley Mangum, Sgt. Andy Waldrop and other instructors, were learning how to handle everything from small johnboats to a 21-foot offshore-capable patrol boat used mainly along the coast.
Waldrop said the recruits must undergo 20 to 24 hours of classroom and practical boating instruction as part of their training. With navigable waterways in 90 percent of the counties in the state, boating skills are vital to Wildlife officers, popularly known as game wardens.
Wildlife officers use boats to check hunting and fishing licenses, boating registrations, and perform safety inspections. They also look for illegal use of drugs or alcohol by boat operators, and are called in to investigate most boating accidents.
"Many people don't realize exactly how much the commission is responsible for on the water," Waldrop said. "Boating skills are a vital part of wildlife enforcement."
Wildlife officers patrol all lakes, rivers, creeks and streams in the state, as well as numerous millponds and reservoirs. They are also responsible for patrolling the Intracoastal Waterway and sounds along the coast.
"Depending on where they are, and the time of year," Waldrop said, "it's easy for an officer to spend 20 or more hours a week in a boat."
The recruits practiced "one-step" landings, where an officer can take one step from a boat to a dock or another boat to check for violations.
The recruits also learned how to perform the waterborne equivalent of a traffic stop.
After giving another Wildlife boat a headstart, recruits have to approach a fast-moving boat and gauge the waves and the speed of both boats before activating a blue light.
The recruits have to be able to match speeds and pull in beside the suspect boat without damaging either vessel or getting bounced around in the waves created by each boat.
Waldrop told the recruits in his boat that a careful approach is one of the most important parts of boating enforcement.
"It doesn't matter if it is a $100,000 boat, or a four-dollar-boat," he said. "That boat is valuable to its owner, and you don't want to be crashing holes into it."
Recruits are also taught to watch suspect boaters to see if they attempt to hide illegal drugs, or switch operators to cover for a possible drunk driver.
"You also have to make sure they don't run," Waldrop said.
Most of the stops, however, involve simple checks of licenses and safety equipment. The average check shouldn't last more than a few minutes, Waldrop said, if the boater has all his or her gear and registration in place.
While another boat practiced enforcement checks against his craft, Waldrop reviewed some of the recent changes in state boating laws, especially the new requirement that all children under 13 wear a personal flotation device when a boat is underway-and that the PFD fit the child.
"If you have a life vest that's rated for a 90-pound child, and the child is much smaller," Waldrop said, "you have a tragedy waiting to happen. Look for these things."
The recruits worked on various stops, approaches and other maneuvers, and practiced landing a patrol boat and offloading an officer, a maneuver used when a suspect boater crashes his vessel into a bank and escapes on foot. A night class was also scheduled, Waldrop said.
The 18 recruits attending the class at White Lake ranged from new college graduates to veteran law officers. After graduation, they will spend up to six months with a field training officer before being assigned to their first duty station.
Some of the recruits, like Southern Shore's native Brandon Joyner, are old hands at boating.
"I've been in boats most all my life," he said. Southern Shores is located on the northern Outer Banks, in an area well known for fishing and waterfowl hunting.
Others, like Jason Wilson of Hillsboro and Brett Walsh of Alleghany County, are lifetime outdoorsmen, but have spent little or no time in boats.
"It's definitely different," Walsh said, taking the 16-foot fiberglass boat into a circle before sidling it carefully up to the dock. His first approach to the dock was too fast, and Waldrop told him to take the boat back out for another try.
The next time, Walsh powered down the boat at the right moment, and the gunwale of the boat slid softly against the dock.
Like most of the recruits, Joyner went into wildlife enforcement as an extension of his love of the outdoors.
"This is a good way for me to stay outside, have a good job, and still enjoy the outdoors," Joyner said. "It's a good opportunity to help people."
Wildlife Enforcement recruits have to learn many of the same skills as regular police officers and sheriff's deputies, in addition to boating, woodscraft, and additional firearms training. Most of the courses are taught through the N.C. Justice academy in Salemburg.
White Lake is regularly used for training by state law agencies because of its proximity to both local regional offices and the Justice Academy. Wildlife and State Park Rangers regularly patrol the waters of the lake, which is owned by the state.
The lake also gives recruits with little boating experience an excellent classroom, Waldrop said.
"The water isn't always glassy like it is today," he said Wednesday. "If we had a good fifteen or twenty mile an hour wind pick up, then you fellows could really learn about some boat handling."