FAIRFIELD — With the approach of the holiday weekend, Congressman Jim Himes joined the Fairfield Police Marine Unit for a ride around Fairfield’s waters Tuesday afternoon.

Himes, a boater himself who enjoys sailing and getting out on the water with his family, was excited to see the work that the Marine Unit is doing, as well as their new police boat recently purchased with federal funds. His main goal for the afternoon, he said, was to raise awareness about best practices on the water.

“With summer getting under way, we do this to highlight the importance of water safety,” Himes said.

Despite some clouds, the warm afternoon brought smooth waters for a cruise around Fairfield. Riding alongside Officer James Wiltsie, Himes inquired about the duties of the Marine Unit as the police boat headed out towards Penfield Reef Lighthouse.

A division of the Fairfield Police Department, the Marine Unit is primarily responsible for Fairfield’s waters. However, they can also be called in for backup in Westport, Bridgeport and Stratford, and the New Haven-based Coast Guard relies on them for local responses.

Marine Unit officers use both boats and jet skis to answer local calls, which often come from boaters with dead batteries and empty gas tanks, as well as those that have gotten stuck on rocks. Pointing out the reef that runs from the marina to the lighthouse, Officer Keith Perham noted that about 40 percent of their calls annually come from people who have hit the reef.

Others, Wiltsie explained, come from boaters who hit the rocks on the other side of the lighthouse, nicknamed “the cows” because of their bulging shape at low tide.

“We’re a mile offshore, so if you’re not from the area you might think, ‘Oh, I can go over there,” Wiltsie said.

Other frequent calls come from paddleboarders and kayakers who have been blown out by the wind and are struggling to get back to shore. Many paddleboarders also aren’t aware of the laws requiring them to keep lifejackets and whistles on board, and the Marine Unit focuses heavily on education enforcement.

With the approach of the busy summer season, Himes was particularly interested how the Marine Unit addresses intensified boating activity. Perham noted that they increase their patrols to seven days a week from April to November, and Wiltsie added that the Marine Unit has a special patrol plan called Operation Safe Water that runs during holiday weekends and busy weeks in August.

Himes also asked about Wednesday’s fireworks show, which launches every year from a barge. Many Fairfield residents anchor their boats nearby to watch, making it one of the busiest nights of the year for the Marine Unit. To ensure boater safety, they put safety perimeters around the launch site and have a dive team on call.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Perham explained.

As the police boat headed back to shore, Wiltsie and Perham pointed out the many motor boats, sailboats and kayaks surrounding various Fairfield County marinas. As summer reaches full swing, the Marine Unit is busy working to keep Fairfield’s waters safe and accident-free.

rscharf@hearstmediact.com