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STARS boating unit sets sail on Mokelumne River

Volunteer group will promote river safety and serve as ‘eyes, ears’ for Sheriff

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Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 8:59 am, Wed May 25, 2011.

A group of volunteers for the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department took their maiden voyage on the Mokelumne River on Tuesday morning. The Sheriff’s Team of Active Retired Seniors, or STARS, debuted its boating unit — a squad that will promote boating safety and serve as a neighborhood watch on the water. Five members of the unit, clad in orange vests and white shirts, climbed in a steel boat and navigated the backwaters of Lodi Lake shortly after 10 a.m.

“They will be our eyes and ears on the water,” said Deputy Les Garcia, a spokesman for the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department. “They are vital to the Sheriff’s office.”

The all-volunteer team will be patrolling the Mokelumne River from Lodi Lake to Highway 99 throughout the summer. Their main task is to make sure people on river wear lifevests, but STARS will also be on the lookout for litterers and drunk boaters, said Mary Ann Dahl, STARS coordinator. STARS don’t have the ability to arrest subjects, but the boat unit has a radio that connects them to the Sheriff’s dispatcher.

Tuesday was a chance for the group to test the currents of the river and become familiar with the area they will patrol, she said.

Having a highly-visible group on the river stressing water safety is something the Sheriff’s department is happy to have, Garcia said.

“Memorial Day (May 30) is seen as the start of the boating season,” Garcia said. “Having the STARS out here will help stress the importance of wearing vests.”

Garcia pointed to the presumed drownings of a 4-year-old boy and a 25-year-old man in French Camp last week as a need for safety reminders around rivers. The incident occurred Saturday at Dos Rios Park when a juvenile fell into the San Joaquin River. A family member rushed into the water in an attempt to grab him, but neither party resurfaced. A search for the two is still underway.

“We can’t over-stress the importance of safety on the river,” Garcia said.

The overall STARS program features 150 volunteers and began 20 years ago. In order to join, participants must be more than 50 years old and take a variety of tests. To be on the boating unit, volunteers must participate in a 40-hour academy, 16-hour boating safety course and pass an online safety course.

The program is funded largely by donations, Dahl said.

“The only thing taxpayers pay for is our gas,” she said. “The vehicles, maintenance, supplies and repairs are all self-funded.”

One of the biggest benefits the team provides, Garcia said, is their concern for their community.

“They won’t take enforcement into their own hands, but they are going to be good witnesses,” he said.

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@lodinews.com.

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