The Age
picture Justin McManus.
Water Police patrol on Port Phillip Bay.
Patrol boat the William Sharrock, patrols the coast just of the Melbourne coast.

Bay watch: It's the start of another busy summer season for water police on Port Phillip Bay. Photo: Justin McManus

THEIR morning was dominated by the rescue of a distressed family stuck in dangerous conditions in the centre of Port Phillip Bay. The afternoon responding to calls about jet-ski drivers, including a rush to the scene of a jet-ski crash.

Now, their 10-hour shift is nearly over. But still the radio on board the water-police boat William Sharrock will not be silenced, issuing what is likely to be the last job of the day for the two officers on board.

''There's a jet-ski fanging up and down, two persons on board,'' the radio says, describing the behaviour of a driver at Warmies boat ramp at Newport.

Given the location, the jet-ski should be travelling no faster than five knots.

Police on board Fearless, the biggest boat in the water-police fleet, have seen the hooning firsthand, but can't reach the location given the shallow water of the channel at the boat ramp. So the request to attend has gone to the officers in the smaller William Sharrock.

By the time the team have dealt with their current job, the hoons are long gone at Warmies ramp. They are ''GOA'', or ''gone on arrival''. It is a description all too often resorted to when water police are sent to check on reports of speeding jet-ski drivers.

The rise in registrations of jet-skis, up 17.4 per cent over the past two years to 14,307 as at October 31, gives water police plenty of activity to keep an eye on. Overall, registrations of all recreational marine vessels have jumped 5 per cent over the past four years to 170,227. And with the summer holidays heating up, many of these vessels will be out on the bay this month.

Before the Newport job the captain of the William Sharrock, Sergeant Jay McDonald, and his colleague are sent to Carrum to respond to a report of a ''jet-ski causing trouble''. The Age is on board for the trip. When the police boat arrives, all water users seem on their best behaviour. A few people swim near the shore, a few jet-skis zoom around a safe distance offshore, while a few others are parked on the beach.

Perhaps the arrival of the William Sharrock has improved the standard of behaviour, or perhaps there was no ''trouble'' in the first place. Police say that some complaints about jet-ski operators come from disgruntled swimmers. At this location, nobody is ''fanging'' around where they should not be.

One man at Carrum on a jet-ski is called over by the officers for a chat. It turns out he is not carrying a torch, as he is required to do. He is allowed to leave with a verbal warning and reminder of the rules. Earlier, another jet-ski operator at St Kilda had received a warning for not carrying his licence.

''We get a large volume of work in relation to PWCs (personal water craft), and that's just due to the fact that they tend to

draw a lot of attention to themselves due to the nature of their operation,'' Sergeant McDonald says as he steers the boat over the waves. ''They're small, they're fast, they tend to bring them close in to shore, they make a lot of noise and they tend to travel in packs.''

But there is another category of bay user that also generates plenty of work for water police - recreational boat users.

''People new to boating can sometimes get themselves into a little bit of strife,'' Sergeant McDonald says. ''It's basic stuff - it's trip preparation, it's maintenance. They fall down a little bit in the planning.''

Earlier, in rough conditions, the William Sharrock was dispatched to find a family of four in the centre of the bay on a boat that wouldn't start. The distressed family was found and their boat towed back to Altona.

''The father was fairly concerned, the wife will never set foot on a boat again and I dare say the kids have probably had their fair share of boating for this summer,'' Sergeant McDonald says.

''I don't think any of them are too keen to get back on board again. They were all terribly seasick.

''I think people have this idea that 'it's only the bay, it's a big lake and it's all enclosed'.

''They have a bit of a false sense of security and they become complacent. But it's just as dangerous as any other stretch of coastal waterway.''

Acting Inspector in charge of water police and search and rescue, Steve Towers, urges the owners of boats and other vessels to check their safety gear before departure and ensure they take it with them on the water. He wants Port Phillip Bay users to enjoy themselves this summer, while respecting the space of other water users.

''Make sure you're safe and be courteous to other people on the water.''