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Safety first: Lake County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit patrols the water

Labor Day weekend is the unofficial end of summer and, as such, people celebrate accordingly.

Grills are fired up, coolers are chilled and, weather permitting, many people head to the water to play in the water and soak up those last rays of sunshine before the weather turns cooler and the days get shorter. 

The waterways of the Fox River Chain O’Lakes are filled with boats, jet skis and all the other water toys people love to play with on beautiful sunny days. Not all the boats on the water are there to have fun, however. Some of the boats are there to keep everyone else safe. 

Those boats are part of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit. 

“Our main focus as far as enforcement usually is operating under the influence of either drugs or alcohol,” Sgt. Phillip Zinkowich said.

Zinkowich said another infraction he and his deputies often see on the water is careless operation. Zinkowich said careless operation “could mean where your passengers are not being seated within the confines of the boat or the actual cabin area of the boat; they may be hanging off the front of the boat, little kids hanging off the front of the boat or adults riding outside of the protective areas of the boat – any kind of a railing or anything where they could fall off the boat and be injured.”

Zinkowich has been with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit for five seasons. This season is his second as the unit’s only full-time officer. The rest of the unit is comprised of part-time deputies who, like Zinkowich, help patrol the Chain O’Lakes – no easy feat when one considers that this water is the largest inland waterway, per acreage, in the country. 

“Obviously, there are bigger lakes like Lake Havasu or Lake of the Ozarks,” Zinkowich said. “But as far as per acreage, we have more boats on average than any other waterway in the country – inland waterway.”

At least four patrols are conducted throughout the waterways each day. In addition to policing and halting careless boating or operators under the influence, deputies regularly monitor harbors and marinas to prevent boat thefts. 

Simply making their presence known to recreational boaters can help keep any partying from getting out of control. 

“(During the day) what we’ll do is go on the sandbar areas where a lot of the boats will … be out there having a good time, they’ll be tied together, but we try to let people know that we are out there so things don’t get carried away,” Zinkowich said.

The Marine Unit’s deputies are trained under the standards set by the U.S. Coast Guard to detect alcohol impairment and administer the Coast Guard’s standardized field sobriety tests.

Zinkowich said much of their job is also about educating the public about proper boat safety. Many times, he said, boaters don’t realize they’re not using the proper flags or lights and his deputies will take the time to educate people during boat safety checks. 

These safety checks aren’t the only opportunity the Marine Unit takes to educate and inform the public. Each year before the boating season opens – and even after it’s already begun – the Marine Unit will participate in community events such as Gurnee Days and the Lake County Fair as part of its community outreach. Additionally, twice a year, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office’s Community Services Division hosts a Citizen’s Police Academy – a 10-week course “provid(ing) Lake County residents a hands-on learning experience of the many facets of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.”

While not a recreational boater, Zinkowich said the dedication and selflessness of the men and women of his team is what made him accept his full-time position on the Marine Unit. 

“I believe what the mission is out here,” he said. “There are a lot of great dedicated men and women who work out here and being part of them when I was out here in 2003, ’04, ’05, I got to know a lot of these guys and gals pretty well. And from what I remember of the unit, the great work we did out here, I just kind of wanted to put my little stamp on this as well. Bringing it from where I remember it being and taking it up to the next level. These men and women out here are doing a fantastic job at making that happen.”

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