Attack of the river creatures

Summer brings out another species of Portlander: the boater
by: Christopher Onstott, The Willamette River was crowded with recreational boaters just off Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park during the Blues Festival at the start of the month.

Looking down from any of Portland's bridges in summertime, it doesn't take long to see there's a whole other city in our midst.

There are the speedboats, sharp as javelins, ripping it up on V-8 motors. Jet skiers - basically dirt bikers in neoprene - zip in and out of the traffic, while jet boats power past, carrying ranks of tourists wrapped in life vests.

There are booze cruisers - like the Portland Spirit and the Crystal Dolphin - and stern-wheelers and 100-foot industrial barges, cop boats, U.S. Coast Guard and firefighters. In tiny skiffs men fish, silent and immobile. Then, powered by muscle, there are the dragon boat race teams and hearty scull crews, the kayak paddlers and, yes, even the swimmers.

'I had two last year, swimming along, naked,' says Officer Kevin Platt, a river patrol cop with the Multnomah County sheriff's office. 'For some reason they like to swim naked.'

'We had to respond to a D.V. just last night,' his partner, Mark Herron says, referring to a domestic violence call. 'Some guy beating up on his girlfriend. Camping on Government Island.'

'Different class of people up there,' Platt chips in. 'Weather gets warm, they get on a bunch of boats and go camp on the island.' Alcohol usually features. Many campers bring their guns with them. Asked why they might need guns camping, Herron shrugs.

'I'll take mine when I go camping, just because I know other people have them,' he says.

The river patrolmen's beat stretches from the Bonneville Dam to Dunthorpe.

It can be a hard slog when calls come in. Their 24 foot Sea Sport patrol boat goes 50 mph, meaning they can never chase down some of the dangerous racing boats which have been caught going 70 to 90 mph.

'There's no speed limit on the water, but they have to be conscious of those who can't get out of the way, which would be a 'careless operation' ticket,' Platt says.

Then there are the fishermen who get in the way of traffic. They recently had one guy anchored in the shipping channel who refused to move until the very last minute as a barge bore down on him. 'There wasn't time to give him a ticket because we were on to the next call,' Platt says.

With drinkers their hands are tied, since it's legal to have an open alcohol container on a boat. And plenty of people drink and boat.

'If you're out all day and it's 90 degrees, you're getting batted around, getting sunburned, then you start consuming alcohol, which dehydrates you even more, it's going to affect your judgment, whether you're at 0.08 or not,' Platt says. 'If we knew this guy's drunker than a skunk but he's anchored here, we can't do anything about it till he takes control of that boat.'

The pair consider jet skis to be among the most dangerous craft, for their speed and the way they move in and out of different groups using the river.

After making at stop at the launch at the Newport Bay restaurant downtown, they cruise on upriver. Officers Herron and Platt keep their eyes on places invisible from the street, such as Powers Marine Park just south of the Sellwood Bridge, a strip of greenery between Southwest Macadam Avenue and the water.

'People barbecue in there. … Anywhere people can get down to the water becomes a li'l spot, with the potential for trouble,' Herron says.

At the southernmost end of their route, they turn around beneath the cliff-top mansions of Dunthorpe with their private jetties and seaplanes. While heading back into town they check for homeless people who sleep in crannies under Interstate 5.

One frustration is that when people radio for help or call 911, they often don't give a precise location or details of who was on board, so the police will waste time combing the waters for men overboard who don't exist. Of their job in general, Herron says: 'Like any officer job, it's 90 percent boredom and 10 percent chaos, and the chaos can come in any shape.'

This funhouse floats

As manager of the RiverPlace Marina, Paul Bishop works at the other end of the spectrum. RiverPlace Marina has 230 slips at 0315 S.W. Montgomery St. While there are racks of kayaks and rowing shells, there's no doubt the luxury yachts keep the place in business. Their owners pay well over $500 a month to moor here, and some stay year-round. Among his tasks are watching the gate, taking care of paperwork and keeping the driftwood from building up.

This is no floating colony - there's no 'live aboard' here. The most you can stay on your boat is 72 hours a week.

'My biggest headache is finding a place to put boats when they come in,' Bishop says.

In summer the ramp gets crowded, with weekend captains loading on beer by the case and catered food. Entertaining is big, even if they don't intend to sail.

'It's a mob scene with the sun out,' Bishop says. 'People come down, everyone brings something. It's more of a dock party.'

Money is not a problem around here; nor are concerns about gas mileage, which is usually measured in gallons per hour. Three miles to the gallon is good, and some of the very big boats get half a mile to the gallon.

Bishop points out the Leviathan II, a luxury yacht clad in black canvas, on which he hasn't seen a passenger in seven years. The owner never fails to pay his dues.

In with the 'in' crowd

Other owners are more hands-on. Todd Patterson of Damascus owns a 50-foot Navigator motor yacht, which he keeps here year-round. His boat new would be $700,000, and it's tricked-out like a stylish studio apartment, with deep carpets and new appliances. One recent afternoon he could be found watching 'Judge Joe Brown' on the flat screen, while 'jumping off the wireless' Internet connection on a neighbor's boat.

Patterson and his girlfriend use it as their weekend house. 'If there's no events on, we'll get on the new trolley thing (streetcar). It'll take you to the Pearl. There's a ton of restaurants around there,' he says.

He's a member of the Portland Yacht Club and cruises with the group to such places as Astoria and Beacon Rock. But staying around the marina is fine by him. 'The main place people go for drinks is the Pilsner Room,' he says, at McCormick and Schmick's Harborside Restaurant. 'After the dinner crowd has gone home you see all the boaters up there from 11 p.m. to 1 o'clock. It's a close community.'

Part shanty town, part gated community, the river is an odd reflection of the rest of Portland. At least while the sun shines.

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