Part police officers, part firefighters and part search and rescue.
The role of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol crosses lines into all aspects of public safety — and many in the community don’t even realize it.
“Nobody knows what we truly do out here,” said Kevin Webster, OCSD Mooring Administrator and Accident Investigator. “We combine all three (public safety services) in one unit, and that’s completely unique to the West Coast.”
The OCSD Harbor Patrol is not only responsible for the safety of the county’s three harbors — Dana Point, Huntington and Newport — but also 48 miles of coastline and the stretch of ocean between the Orange County shore and Catalina Island.
They are responsible for rescuing stranded or disabled vessels, responding to marine fires and running interdiction operations to catch drug and human smugglers.
Harbor Patrol deputies also are equipped to give medical aid on the water and investigate crimes, with burglaries being among the most commonly reported problems.
And they often patrol the harbors and look for opportunities to educate the public about boat safety.
“Most people come down to the harbor to have a good time, but … you don’t have to have any sort of training to drive a boat,” Webster said. “Typically speed violations and children not wearing life jackets are the two most common things we see.”
Forty deputies make up the Harbor Patrol team, which staffs 24-hour fire boats at each harbor, and one patrol boat each in Dana Point and Huntington, and two in Newport.
The summer is the busy season, Webster said, but the unit is always fielding calls.
The Harbor Patrol in 2015 responded to 22 boat fires, 22 medical aids and 232 rescues, which includes emergency responses, said Webster, who has been with OCSD for 16 years and Harbor Patrol for 6.
These calls included responding to a marine fire on the iconic “William B.” — a wooden tugboat built in 1942 that went up in a blaze early Halloween morning.
Harbor Patrol crews contained the diesel fuel that had spilled from the historic tugboat and extinguished the fire after several hours of fighting, but the damage was too great for the “William B.”
The tugboat ended up sinking in the harbor.
Deputies responded to another Orange County icon catching fire earlier this year when the shuttered Ruby’s diner at the end of the Seal Beach pier went up in flames.
Harbor Patrol, along with firefighters from Long Beach and Orange County agencies, successfully battled the blaze to preserve as much of the pier as possible.
When not heading out to the things they’ve trained for — marine fires, boat rescues and the like — Harbor Patrol deputies must be ready to improvise because strange things can happen on the water.
Strange things like towing a 40-ton decaying humpback whale out to sea in hopes it would sink and decompose. (After at least five tows by various agencies along the Southern California coast, Wally the Whale washed up in Encinitas.)
Or like helping a family who came barreling into the harbor after a dolphin jumped from the ocean and into their boat. The marine mammal landed on a woman, breaking both of her ankles, and also cut its tail, splashing blood all over the interior.
Deputies responded and helped the woman get medical attention, and kept the injured dolphin alive before safely releasing it into the wild.
Harbor Patrol has to be prepared for anything, which is why making it to the team takes in-depth preparation.
Deputies first have to pay their dues in the jail system and serve in patrol for at least a year.
Then, if selected for the team, they enter a three-month-long training program — much of which revolves around learning to expertly navigate OCSD’s twin-engine vessels.
It’s a job that challenges the resilience of deputies who want to join.
“By the time you go home at the end of the day you’re exhausted,” Webster said. “It’s physically demanding, but you’re being tested a lot mentally, too.”
Harbor Patrol deputies take on extra medical training and also embark on an intensive one-week firefighting course, in which they learn to master the kinds of fires they might encounter, including gas, diesel, propane and electric.
“When things go bad, they go really bad and for the most part, we’re out here on our own,” Webster said. “We’re the first responders out here.”
The harbor was quiet on a recent Thursday morning as Webster patrolled in one of the OCSD fire boats.
The thick early-morning marine layer had burned off to reveal a bright sky and warm air that summoned fishermen, stand-up paddle boarders and kayakers to the harbor.
A light breeze filled the sails of single-person boats captained by young children learning how to tack through the harbor.
Some stopped briefly to call out to Webster and wave. The fire boat with its bright red paint and shiny chrome details is always a big draw with locals and visitors.
Webster puttered past the grand multi-million dollar homes pointing out the estate that once belonged to John Wayne and the place where Nicholas Cage once lived.
He also recalled a few occasions the Harbor Patrol worked in conjunction with the United States Secret Service and Sheriff’s Dignitary Protection Unit to provide on-water security for high-profile politicians visiting the region.
Coasting by several dilapidated boats tied to moorings, Webster pointed out a few that have been long-abandoned by their owners — some which will eventually be towed to a boat yard and destroyed.
Massive yachts that serve as weekend entertaining venues for local millionaires moored near humble vessels that stow the entirety of a person’s belongings reveal the overt juxtaposition of life in the harbor.
“You need to be flexible and understand that you have all walks of life down here,” Webster said. “You need to be able to communicate with all different types of people.”
The eclectic community is one of the things Webster loves about his job.
And the office view isn’t bad, either.
“I love the variety. We’re out in the open in this beautiful environment,” he said. “The boating community, in general, likes what we do and likes the service we provide. They understand that we’re out here to help them.”