EASTERN SHORE — It’s just after 12:30 a.m. on a recent weeknight and Natural Resources Police Cpl. Roy Rafter, 48, is driving on the Eastern Shore to a stakeout near an oyster bed that he’s heard is being illegally raided at night.
The plan is for Officer Drew Wilson to drive an unmarked vehicle and drop off Rafter within view of the oyster sanctuary. They don’t use their regular police trucks for fear of being spotted in small communities where they’re not terribly popular with some folks.
It’s about 30 degrees out.
They wear warm, dark clothing. They bring extra hats, gloves and Rafter’s specialty – a huge thermos of hot chocolate that holds about half a gallon.
Natural Resources Police officers like Wilson and Rafter are up against staggering odds. The force is down to an allocation of 247 from 440 in 1990. Officers responded to 20,394 service calls in 2010, up nearly 39 percent from 2001. They are responsible for roughly 17,000 miles of shoreline, including tributaries.
This year’s fishing season has seen the largest rockfish poaching bust in more than 20 years. It was Rafter’s own homemade grappling hook that caught the first net on Feb. 1 near Kent Island. Officers found 13 tons of illegally caught fish over the next few weeks, sometimes working 18-hour days to haul in nets.
An Early Morning On the Water
12:54 a.m. The officers should be on their way to the stakeout. Instead, they are standing in a parking lot, plugging latitude and longitude coordinates into a handheld GPS.
A radio-controlled perimeter around an oyster sanctuary near the Bay Bridge has sent out an alert and a quick check shows two boats driving through the sanctuary.
The alert went out from the Maritime Law Enforcement Information Network, a system of radar and cameras set up in four locations around the Chesapeake Bay and paid for by a Homeland Security Grant.
The two officers change plans, driving instead to the Department of Natural Resources facility on Kent Island, where the boat Rafter usually uses is moored.
Rafter and Wilson are the only officers patrolling this half of the Chesapeake Bay tonight.
1:49 a.m. “There’s my baby,” Rafter says as he pulls alongside the 25-foot “Talbot.”
The officers load equipment and climb aboard. They work in tandem without speaking much.
Rafter, a barrel-chested former waterman, left fishing for good in 1998 after two years in law enforcement, joining the NRP a few years later. Drew Wilson, a 23-year-old native of Dorchester County, just reached his second year with the force.
Wilson started drinking coffee at home but brought an energy drink as part of his supplies, in case he gets tired.
1:56 a.m. In spite of oppressive darkness, Rafter starts the boat and pulls out of Matapeake Harbor.
“I’m not going to put any lights on,” Rafter says, fearing that extra illumination could be the only tipoff poachers or potential lookouts would need to spot the boat.
2:04 a.m. We pass underneath the Bay Bridge, gunning for the oyster sanctuary on the other side of Love Point. The eerie glow of multiple navigation screens is the only light inside the cabin.
2:12 a.m. Wilson is holding night vision goggles to his eyes, scanning the shoreline while beside him, Rafter carefully pilots the Talbot through dangerously shallow water.
The depth meter reads 2.3 feet … 2 feet …
Rafter abruptly swings the Talbot’s bow so that it points away from Love Point.
He likes the Talbot because she’s made for sleuthing. She has a shallow draft, so she can hug the shoreline and a poacher’s radar might not register her as different from the shore.
2:14 a.m. A half moon hangs low over the water on this side of the bay, a bright yellowish, orange glow that reflects off of the gently rippling water.
Wilson swaps the night vision goggles for regular binoculars. He struggles to search the area directly in the path of the reflecting moonlight. The men say a poacher will often work with a tiny flashlight, which aids police by showing up as a bigger and brighter light when viewed through night vision goggles.
But on nights like this, poachers could just work by the light of the moon.
2:17 a.m. “Damn moon,” Wilson murmurs.
Rafter exhales, watching the depth finder add foot after foot of water. The Talbot is in the clear and Rafter accelerates away from Love Point.
Rafter sees his role as a protector of the resources he so loves.
Both men talk about the toll the job takes on their personal life.
It requires an understanding spouse. Rafter’s been married to the same woman for 31 years. She sometimes makes a pot of soup and freezes it so Rafter can heat it up when he’s on the boat during busy times.
2:29 a.m. Rafter has called dispatch again and reached the logical conclusion – there are no poachers in the Strong Bay Oyster Sanctuary tonight.
He thinks that tug boats near the sanctuary triggered the alarm and says the system is still being adjusted for sensitivity.
Rafter decides to continue to the Corsica River to check some known poaching areas.
3:05 a.m. Rafter flips a switch and suddenly a bright search beam comes from the top of the boat, then jerks over, over, over, before coming to rest on a spot reflecting back some light. Rafter pauses a moment, then continues to move the light around, looking for poachers.
“Since we’re not going to go any farther, I’m not afraid to light it up,” Rafter says.
“I want to catch somebody,” Wilson says.
The light only stays on for a few minutes before they move on.
3:31 a.m. “This is where we caught those boys the other day,” Rafter says, once they’ve reached the Possum Point Oyster Sanctuary in the Corsica River.
It took Rafter a week of overnight stakeouts before arresting six men in the daytime on Feb. 21.
Rafter says once the men spotted him, they dumped the oysters in the river before coming ashore. But, he says, he had already run for about a mile and crawled on his belly across an open field before snapping pictures. With that evidence, the men were charged in Queen Anne’s County. All but two had oyster licenses on file with the state.
The oyster population is between 1 and 2 percent of historic levels.
3:40 a.m. Rafter offers more of his hot chocolate, a concoction that still steams as he pours it out of his beaten-up thermos. It isn’t a special recipe, just powdered chocolate and hot water. But out here, in the quiet otherworldliness on the water, it tastes like a $5 blend from Starbucks.
Rafter says he is being paid tonight through an overtime poaching fund. Covering the Bay requires both staff flexibility and overtime funds.
The Department of Natural Resources’ Kathy Lantz, the chief administrative services employee, said the Natural Resources Police spent $792,000 in overtime in fiscal year 2010 for field operations.
3:54 a.m. “We’ll leave the lights off just in case,” Rafter says, as he heads back down the river toward the bay. He and Wilson are hoping to catch a poacher so they are still using covert techniques, like leaving the search light and other lights in the cabin of the boat off.
Legislators are trying to help the Natural Resources Police, proposing bills this General Assembly session that would pay for more officers and increase penalties for poachers.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said he knows how difficult it is for Natural Resources Police to do their jobs.
“The bay is a big place and there are people out there poaching oysters and it makes it incredibly lucky and incredibly difficult,” Frosh said. “When they catch somebody it’s really lucky because there are so few DNR police.”
4:29 a.m. “Shoot,” Rafter says. He’s turned on all the lights inside and outside the cabin, and is steaming for home. And for the first time, he’s able to see that the gas gauge is low. Alarmingly low.
Rafter explains that internal rules dictate that whoever used the boat last should fill it up to at least a half tank of gas, but clearly that hasn’t happened here, as half a tank can last for about 10 hours on the water.
4:48 a.m. There is an ominous sputtering sound, then silence. We’re just 10 minutes from the DNR dock on Kent Island but we’re stuck in the middle of the bay, bobbing near the Bay Bridge. Rafter is embarrassed and apologizes before calling the next officer on duty.
Both officers say they have never been stuck without gas before.
Time passes and Rafter spends much of the wait on the deck of the now anchored boat, wearing a flannel shirt over a fleece pull-over and worn blue-jeans. He doesn’t wear any gloves, just stands on the deck and watches the water, occasionally making phone calls.
He comes back inside a few times, saying he called the officer who had last used the boat. Rafter is told mechanics didn’t want more gas in the boat because it was scheduled for maintenance
Sgt. Art Windemuth, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Police, later said the officer who last used the boat should have written in the Talbot’s maintenance log that it was being taken out of service.
6:12 a.m. Rescue arrives in the form of two officers on one of the older boats. They lash the Talbot to the side of their boat, her rubber sides making it quicker to tow the boat than wait to fill her up with gas. But it’s a slow pace back.
7:21 a.m. We arrive at the dock with a gracefully executed twirl, thanks to a push from our towers.
The sun is up. It’s a beautiful dawn.
Rafter and Wilson are running through their end-of-shift chores: Filling the Talbot with gas, unloading gear and washing the deck.
From here, both officers are going home to get some sleep. Rafter will pull a night shift again the following night.
Wilson explains it this way: Whereas some officers might take a night off after a successful week-long stakeout, that’s not Rafter’s style. He’s a worker and he’s dedicated. He will be back at the stakeout point that he was pulled away from, determined to catch more poachers.