A Q&A with... James Wiltsie
FAIRFIELD — That James Wiltsie spends his workday on the water shouldn’t be a surprise.
After all, the 45-year-old Fairfield Police officer grew up on the water in Stratford’s Lordship section. He worked summers at Captain’s Cove as a crew member on the HMS Rose and spent time on a neighbor’s lobster boat. Even now, he has a second job as a salvage diver with Sea Tow.
In fact, 15 of Wiltsie’s 19 years with Fairfield has been spent as a member of the marine unit. He is also a member of the department’s dive team and is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain.
With the July 4 holiday marking the official start of the boating season for many boat owners, Wiltsie took some time to talk about the marine unit and boating safety.
Q: How many vessels and officers make up the marine unit?
To schedule a vessel inspection, call 203-254-4866.
A: There are three full-time, seasonal officers from April to November/ We have a 33-foot boat and a 23-foot boat, both are manufactured by Safety Boats International and were acquired through port security funding. We also have two jet skis, as well, and we have an alternate officer that will come in to work special events.
Q: When are marine unit officers on duty? Are you out on the boat the whole time?
A: We’re lucky enough to have flexible hours. On the weekends we’ll work 10 to 6, or a little later in the evening. If we wake up and it’s pouring, we’ll work 8 to 4, or maybe 7 to 3. It’s really weather dependent.
We try to get ‘underway’ hours every day and we’ll cruise to Southport Harbor to be pro-active and let people know we’re here.
Q: What is the most common safety error boaters make?
A: What we’re seeing is a trend lately is paddleboarders with no life jackets. They’re not aware that they are required to have a life jacket. That’s been the Coast Guard rule for a year or two or now, and they’ll paddle about a mile out, and if they fall, they can't get back on the paddleboard. It’s the same with kayaks, they’ll go rent one or buy one at Walmart. For the last two years, that’s been the trend in our area.
As far as boaters, power boaters, people don’t have an awareness about the area around them. They go out once or twice a month and don’t know that area, and the tides.
Q: Can a boater request a vessel inspection?
A: We push the vessel inspection program we have. We had the marina manager send out a blast email. It’s a way to enforce safety and people do actually reach out to us. The recreational boater doesn’t always know they need a throwable device — some don’t even know what a throwable device is.
The inspections are our way to connect with boaters. We got through the boat with them, some of them ask why “are you busting my chops,” but it’s safety. What we do here is educate boaters how to operate their vessel in a safe manner in Long Island Sound.
We have a very beautiful coastline, and we want everybody to use it, but also be aware of their surroundings. We just had a rescue of paddleboarders there were 30 mph winds and an outgoing tide in Pine Creek that was pushing them out to sea. We always tell people, it doesn’t take long to check the tide before you go out, check the weather. Long Island Sound is notorious for swiftly changing weather conditions.
Another thing we harp on is communication. Tell people where you’re going. We had a 20-year-old swimmer missing, he just went for a walk. Communicate. If you’re taking your boat out for the weekend, we have paperwork you can fill out with your float plan, where you’re going. This gives us the tools we need if we have to start a search. That’s very important for kayakers and paddleboarders too.
Another thing is when we get a good lunar tide, kayaks tend to float away and we find an empty kayak. We have these stickers that tell us who to contact. We try to give them out at the beginning of the season.
Q: When you’re not at work, do you prefer to stay on dry land?
A: Actually, my uncle has a 36-foot Formula up on the Housatonic, I’ll take the kids up there.