7 Jan 2016

Patrolling the capital's waters

8:22 am on 7 January 2016

From rescuing boaties in trouble, to warding off poachers and investigating crimes that happen on the water, there's not much the Wellington Police Maritime Unit doesn't do.

Senior Sergeant David Houston has been in the Wellington Police Maritime Unit for more than 18 years.

Senior Sergeant David Houston has been in the Wellington Police Maritime Unit for more than 18 years. Photo: RNZ / Adriana Weber

The Lady Elizabeth IV is an 18m catamaran fitted out for more than eight officers with enough power to get from Wellington to Christchurch or New Plymouth in just a few short hours.

Headed by Senior Sergeant David Houston, or Tex as he likes to be called, the team of specially trained officers work around the clock to tick off the tasks on their never ending to-do list.

"There's a lot of going over the boats, making sure they're all fit for purpose to go out on the water," Mr Houston said.

"We do some intensive checks on the boats and if we get called during that day we respond to any emergencies that happen on the water."

Mr Houston said they also dealt with any thefts and any dishonesty or criminal offences.

"We also look after the marine reserve in Island Bay, making sure no one's poaching in there, and dabble in a bit of customs work," he said.

The unit also did security checks on cruise ships, oversees water sport events, helped with body recovery and supported the Police National Dive Squad and Special Tactics Group.

But what kept them the busiest was responding to any rescue callouts in the Wellington, Lower North Island and Upper South Island regions.

Senior Sergeant David Houston, left, and Constable Kyle Smith prepare to leave the berth.

Senior Sergeant David Houston, left, and Constable Kyle Smith prepare to leave the berth. Photo: RNZ / Adriana Weber

Even Mr Houston, a former surf lifesaver and national long-distance swimming champion, found himself at the centre of a callout before he joined the team.

"I was working on the front-line in the police and one day I was in a windsurfing race from Eastbourne to Petone...we got half way across and the wind just dropped right out so I was sitting there, with about five others, in the water for an hour, waiting for some wind.

"The police launch was watching, came and picked me up and took me back to Petone beach, so I thought 'that's a great job, I wouldn't mind doing that'."

The number of callouts was gradually increasing, reaching a high of 180 callouts last year. Many of those were in the summer months.

Mr Houston put that down to more people heading into the water due to an increase in the popularity and affordability of water sports.

Easier access to cellphones also played a part as people did not hesitate to call the team's communication centre for help.

But people were still taking risks on the water, and that was another factor, he said.

To prevent callout numbers from rising any further, he's urging boaties and anyone going on or near the water this summer to take all possible steps to ensure they're safe.

"Firstly, wear your life jacket, make sure it fits properly. The second thing is skipper responsibility, as the skipper you will be responsible for those on board, so you've got to make sure your boat is seaworthy, that you've got all the proper equipment on board and that you're trained," he said.

A boat should have at least two different sorts of communication devices, and checking the weather forecast before heading out was essential.

Team member Constable Kyle Smith said telling someone on shore, be it their partner or friends, about their intentions before they left the shore was equally important.

"Everyone has a cellphone now and people are so reliant upon that they'll go on the boat but they're out here fishing and it's in a black spot so they can't tell someone that they're going to be late," Mr Smith said.

"You must tell someone where you're going and what time you're due home so when they're not there it's legitimate, they can call police and we can try to find you before it gets dark."

The Wellington Police Maritime Unit is one of two in the country, with the other based in Auckland.