By Pat Copeland
sun staff writer
HOLMES BEACH The day was sunny
and warm. We were in the police department parking lot loading
up gear and waiting for members of the dive team to arrive.
I was going out on the Gulf with the police departments
dive team for a practice exercise. Little did I know that
this day would prove to have a wealth of yenta value.
What is yenta value, you ask? Its something I learned
about from my college roommate, Debbe Goldberg. Yentas are
the old ladies who sit on the steps of their apartment buildings
or on their front porches and gossip about everybody in
the neighborhood. They know everything about everyone.
Any adventure, whether it is fantastic or a disaster or
somewhere in between, is measured by its yenta value or
how great it going to be when you retell it.
Officer Vern McGowin, the dive team leader; officer Mike
Pilato, a new team member; and I loaded into one truck for
the drive to Commissioner Sandy Haas-Martens house.
Reserve officer Karen Grasser, who was learning operate
the police boat; and police dispatcher Leigh Lewis, a civilian
diver and new team member, were in the other truck.
The boat was moored at Haas-Martens dock. We loaded the
gear and prepared to cast off. The first order of business
was to outfit me, a non-swimmer, with a life jacket. The
second was for McGowin to ask me if I got seasick.
"No," I replied confidently.
Did I neglect to mention that my three previous boating
experiences were on a catamaran, a pontoon boat and a leisurely
fishing trip with Capt. Scott Moore? I hoped I wouldnt
be proven a liar and end up hanging over the side spewing
my words into the waves.
The next order of business was to pick up civilian diver
Dennis Miller, who lived on a canal in Anna Maria. It took
a while to find the right canal, but once we did, we loaded
up Miller and his gear and headed for the Gulf.
McGowin explained the scenario.
"Were going out seven miles in the Gulf to dive
on a sunken tug. Im going to be the missing victim.
The others will find my body and bring it back to the boat."
I was sitting in the back of the boat enjoying the beautiful
day and sucking up toxic fumes from the motor, but once
we hit Tampa Bay things changed quickly. Grasser accelerated
and the boat went up in the air and came down with an incredibly
The others were having the time of their lives, while I
was in fear for mine. I wisely decided to move to the seat
behind Grasser and hang on for dear life with my right arm
while trying to hang onto the camera with my left arm. With
each smack, I could feel another bruise forming on my arm.
We made it to the area where the tug was located and then
began the process of finding it. Meanwhile, the boat was
pitching from side to side, and I was hanging onto anything
I could with my left arm while attempting to shoot photos
with my right arm.
Grasser suggested I sit on the side of the boat in order
to get a better angle. My reply is probably not printable
in a family newspaper.
They found the tug and threw the anchor overboard. The divers
donned their gear, while I continued to shoot photos. One
by one, they fell backward off the boat into the water.
Grasser was monitoring their bubbles.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature was not in a cooperative mood
today. The anchor was not secured in the tug and the strong
current had pulled the boat away from the tug. Miller unsuccessfully
attempted to find the tug by tying a string to the anchor
and doing sweeping arcs.
The divers gave up and returned to the boat. They began
removing their gear, while Grasser headed for shore. This
proved to be another adventure in wave riding, only worse
because we were traveling faster. Everybodys always
in a hurry to get home.
The first time the salt spray came crashing over the boat
and smacked me in the face, it took me by surprise. I sputtered
and caught my breath and then resigned myself to the inevitable
McGowin handed me a towel, but it was a futile exercise.
I used it instead to cover the camera bag, hoping to protect
the company camera inside and myself from my boss
Drenched, tired and bruised, I stumbled onto the dock, where
Haas-Martens handed out lemonade to everyone. Did I mention
that I missed lunch?
Thank goodness for yenta value.
Dedicated divers are volunteers
By Pat Copeland
sun staff write
HOLMES BEACH The police departments
dive team has been evolving for the past three years, and
members are currently getting various levels of training
in order to serve their city and other local departments.
"Its been a long process," Officer Vern
McGowin, the team leader, explained. "We have
no budget, so it has taken us longer to get started. Im
lucky that these guys are willing to do this, and were
lucky that the chief (Police Chief Jay Romine) is letting
us do this. Hes been very understanding."
Police officers on the team include McGowin, Pete Lannon
and Mike Pilato. Civilian volunteers include Leigh Lewis,
a dispatcher with the police department; Dennis Miller;
Gary Hughes and Jeff Lonzo, a lieutenant with West Manatee
Fire & Rescue.
"Vern and I have been diving together for five years,"
Lannon said. "About three years ago we started to organize
the team. Theyre a bunch of really good guys, and
they all volunteer their time."
Because there is no budget for the team, each member has
to buy his own equipment. Equipment can cost $1,200 or more.
Team members have various levels of experience and training.
McGowin has attended police dive school in Miami and is
currently working on his dive master certification.
"Ed Ice does all our certifications and training for
free," McGowin said. "He is super; I cant
say enough good things about him."
"He used to train police and fire department members
in Texas," Lannon added. "If the department had
to pay, it would have cost quite a bit to get us certified."
Ice said he trained in Texas as a public safety diver, is
a scuba instructor and has been teaching diving for 15 years.
He is currently working with team members on advanced diving,
rescue diving, equipment and dive master.
"We dive anywhere the Keys, caverns but mostly
here in the bay and the Gulf," Ice said. "You
dont do public safety diving in nice conditions. We
train for dirty, dingy, rough conditions.
"I dont want them to see it; I want them to run
into it. They have to have a great deal of confidence in
themselves and their equipment. They learn as much about
what to do as what not to do."
Pilato and Lewis, the newest members of the team, just got
certified in basic and have started advanced training. Basic
includes diving to 60 feet in open water. Advanced has a
130-foot depth limit and includes night diving, navigation
and introduction to rescue.
Divers can also take instruction in specific areas such
as rescue, nitrox, equipment, photography, recreational
diving, cave diving, etc.
"Theres something for everyone," Lannon
Members of the team have used their skills to aid both the
public and police agencies. Divers had a training session
in which they cleaned out the canal between 74th and 75th
streets and they have dived into local waters to hook up
McGowin has traveled to Charlotte County to aid police in
a murder investigation, and McGowin, Lannon and Ice aided
the Manatee County Sheriffs Office in searching for
a baseball bat that was used a weapon before being thrown
off the Green Bridge in Palmetto.