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Vol 5 No. 30 - April 13, 2005

Adventure with the police dive team

Left: Officer Mike Pilato dons his gear for the dive. Right: Dennis Miller removes
Lewis’ tank after the dive while Grasser watches.

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 department’s 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? It’s 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 wouldn’t 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.

"We’re going out seven miles in the Gulf to dive on a sunken tug. I’m 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 hard smack.

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. Everybody’s 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 salt shower.

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’ wrath.
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 department’s 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.

"It’s been a long process," Officer Vern McGowin, the team’ leader, explained. "We have no budget, so it has taken us longer to get started. I’m lucky that these guys are willing to do this, and we’re lucky that the chief (Police Chief Jay Romine) is letting us do this. He’s 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. They’re 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 can’t 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 don’t do public safety diving in nice conditions. We train for dirty, dingy, rough conditions.
"I don’t 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.

"There’s something for everyone," Lannon said.

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 submerged vehicles.

McGowin has traveled to Charlotte County to aid police in a murder investigation, and McGowin, Lannon and Ice aided the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office in searching for a baseball bat that was used a weapon before being thrown off the Green Bridge in Palmetto.

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