White clouds dotted the deep blue sky over Lake Zoar Wednesday as motor boats roared along the water — some pulling people on skis. A few jet ski riders bounced along the waves and others paddled in canoes. The beaches along the shore began to fill up with sunbathers and visitors intent on cooling off with an afternoon swim.
Not everyone on the lake was there for fun in the sun on Independence Day. A white, 21-foot boat with "L.Z.A. Marine Patrol" in dark blue letters on the side patrolled the waters. Bill Cannon of Ansonia was at the controls and Monroe Police Officer Mark Caufield shared his holiday shift.
The two men were checking to make sure nobody behaved recklessly, that all boat drivers had the proper licenses, registration and equipment — such as fire extinguishers — and that everyone wore a life jacket.
"Safe: That's the word for our primary mission," said Cannon, a retired master sergeant for the state police, who now serves in the U.S. Marshals Service in New Haven.
Lake Zoar flows through the towns of Monroe, Oxford, Newtown and Southbury and all four towns have representatives on the Lake Zoar Authority, the governing body responsible for maintaining and policing the lake. The towns also contribute to the L.Z.A.'s operating budget.
Caufield said police officers from the four towns take turns patrolling the water every week.
"We've gone seven years without a major accident," Caulfield said. "In the last one, guys were drinking and speeding on a foggy night. One died and two were seriously injured when they crashed in Newtown."
"We've never had a DUI on the lake over the past five years, because the people pretty much police themselves," he added.
The most common offenses are for safety equipment violations or not wearning a life jacket, according to Caulfield.
Of another violation, Caulfield said, "Jet skis have no lights and people are not allowed to ride them at night. Some owners will put lights on their jet skis, but it's illegal."
Kicked Off the Water
Lake Zoar is about 16 miles long and a quarter-of-a-mile wide at its widest point, with depths ranging from 5 to 80 feet. During Cannon and Caulfield's seven-hour shift, they would travel across it four to five times.
The speed limit on the lake is 45 mph during the day and 20 mph at night.
An average day for Caulfield includes about 10 stops and most result in warnings. "At most, I give out about three infractions and only kick people off the water for not being qualified to drive the boat, having no license or if they don't have safety equipment," he said.
Caulfield remembers an incident when a group of young men bought a boat off of eBay and took it out on the water with no license, no life jackets and a cooler full of beer. He ordered them off the water, but saw them again a week later and issued a $75 fine.
Cannon and Caulfield had to send some people to shore on Wednesday.
Caufield saw a woman in a canoe with a man swimming alongside her — neither of them wore a life jacket. The officer glanced at Cannon and said, "Bill, lights." Cannon flipped on a switch activating the boat's blue strobe lights.
"Sir. Ma'am. It's a boat. You need a life jacket and I don't see one," Caulfield said.
Another woman in an inflatable canoe with five children floated nearby. Only one of the boys wore a life jacket.
"You have to go in," Caulfield told them, but first he motioned them all to the side of his boat. "It's a safety issue and the officer will explain about the license and the PFDs (Personal Floatation Devices). Anyone under 12 has to have a vest on."
Cannon handed them a boater handbook. "Read it. It will tell you what you need to know," he said. "The leading cause of boat fatalities everywhere is drowning."
Cannon also told them they could get back on the water after taking a 10 minute drive to Southbury Plaza on Route 67, where there is a K-Mart that sells life jackets in all sizes.
The Dock Dispute
Cannon said it's not often, but people sometimes see the marine patrol boat and flag it down. On Wednesday, two men involved in a dispute did just that. One of them was complaining that a bass fisherman's boat was too close to his dock — Caulfield sided with the dock owner.
Caulfield told the fisherman, "You can't be within 100 feet of his dock."
"Thank you sir," the homeowner said, giving the fisherman a hard stare.
(However, Connecticut statutes only apply the 100-foot rule to fishing inside the markers demarcating an authorized, restricted swim area and allows no wakes within 100 feet of a dock.)
After the incident, Caulfield said, "I could have issued an infraction for that, but gave him a verbal warning instead. He didn't know better and was just trying to have a good time."
Caulfield said being too close to the dock, if the fisherman lost a lure, the homeowner's family could have a mishap while swimming if someone stepped on the hook.
Another common complaint is when boaters play loud music close to shore, according to Caulfield.
"The people who live on Lake Zoar, they're respectful and in compliance," he said, adding visitors from other towns tend to rack up the most offenses.
During their shift, the marine patrol boat passed sites like Jackson's Cove at Oxford Town Park and Kettletown State Park in Southbury. Caulfield and Cannon often exchanged greetings with boaters, as they waved at each other and joked around at close passes.
Even most enforcement stops were cordial.
The officers could not see the registration sticker on a jet ski, so they approached it with their boat's siren on. It turns out that the jet ski rider had it. Caulfield and Cannon then checked the paperwork for the man and his two friends.
"Brian, you got a fire extinguisher in there?" Caulfield asked.
"Yes," the man replied, showing the officer where he kept it. "And you're wearing your vest," Caulfield observed.
"Megan, do you have your personal operator's license?" he asked a female jet skier, before checking the paperwork. "All right Megan, everything's in order."
After the friendly exchange, the three jet skiers wished the officers a happy holiday.
"Thanks for not giving us a hard time," Caulfield called out to them.
'This is Awesome'
When any police boat is stopped with its blue lights on, every boat should go by with no wake at all.
"It's a very hard job for us to do with the boats banging into each other," Caulfield said of the marine patrol boat being alongside a boat for enforcement and both vessels being jostled by passing boats.
Boaters receive a verbal warning this year, but next year the offense will result in a fine.
Despite the fact that the marine patrol officers were working, spending the day on the water in scenic surroundings wasn't lost on them.
"This is awesome," Caulfield said with a smile.
Caulfield he enjoys his job so much that he recently completed a two-week course in South Carolina enabling him to train other officers as an instructor.
Cannon also loves serving in the Marine Division.
"I'm an old Navy man," said Cannon, who had served in South East Asia. "I was born and raised on the Housatonic River in Seymour and have been boating all my life. I used to race them."