Created in 2000, the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit patrols area waters enforcing boating laws and educating residents and visitors about safety precautions while in the water.
DESTIN — On a typical Monday morning, Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Marine Unit Deputy Kyle Corbitt patrolled his usual area on the outskirts of Crab Island when he noticed a pontoon boat breaking idle speed in a no wake zone.
Corbitt, who has been with the Marine Unit for three years, flashed the blue lights on his 26-foot patrol vessel and made his way over to the boat.
The deputy pulled next to the vessel which, unlike on land, takes a little more time and a lot of patience. But the stop was about more than just breaking idle speed.
Corbitt ensured the visitors had all safety gear in place, including life jackets and fire extinguishers, before he let them leave.
With a growing number of boaters, water activities and rental vessel operators, most summer days are far more busy than this Monday for the Marine Unit, Sgt. Brian Parkton said.
"This is just the scratch of the surface of what these guys do every day," Parkton said. "They do so much. (One Monday) doesn't do this job justice."
The Marine Unit deputies respond to calls such as boat rescues and drownings. They also perform stops with probable cause, Corbitt said, to ensure boaters are not operating vessels under the influence or riding without proper safety equipment. Corbitt said they've also been called to a boat explosion in the past.
Although the deputies can issue a ticket or make an arrest, Corbitt said they usually will take time to speak with the boaters first, whether tourists or locals.
"Sheriff Larry Ashley is a big proponent of education first," he said.
Along with the everyday calls, the unit also participates in various operations such as the recent Operation Knot Lit, when deputies handed out 92 warnings for speed zone violations, made two arrests for boating under the influence and put in 50 hours from July 3 to July 7.
The Marine Unit was created in 2000 as a partnership between the county and the city of Destin. At the moment, the unit has four full-time deputies, with two deputies' salaries funded by the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council.
"We want someone on the water every single day," Corbitt said.
Three Marine Unit vessels patrol the county's waters, and Corbitt said there is always a Marine Unit deputy on duty. The three vessels are a 2008 26-foot Silver Ships Ambar soft-sided patrol used for daily operations, a 2000 24-foot Cape Horn Center Console and a 2009 22-foot Pathfinder center console used for shallow area patrols such as at Crab Island.
Recently, one of the vessels was damaged when a wave broke the window during a water rescue attempt and injured the deputies on board.
Before the additional deputies were added, Corbitt said only one patrolled the waters — Deputy Daryl Culberson, who has been with the unit for 13 years.
"How he was able to do this job out here by himself as just one sheriff's deputy blows our minds because we are just constantly dealing with stuff," he said.
The Marine Unit works closely with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers and the Coast Guard. Corbitt said calling for backup on the road tends to be easier because deputies are close by. On the water, sometimes only one Marine Unit deputy is working.
"We know everybody there at the Coast Guard. We know the FWC officers," Corbitt said. "We take care of each other if we need backup."
Contrary to popular opinion, the Marine Unit wasn't created to pick on the locals, but to keep the locals safe, Corbitt said.
"Locals should know better," he said. "You should know your waters, especially if you're a regular boater."
Corbitt said despite the difficulty of the job at times and the overtime during the summer that made him miss his son's birthday, he couldn't imagine doing anything else.
"We all love what we do," he said. "This is something I could see myself doing for the rest of my career."