An Inside Look at the New Rochelle Harbor Police Marine Unit

Photos courtesy of New Rochelle Police Dept. Harbor Unit

Contributing writer James Vespe spends a day on the Long Island Sound with members of the New Rochelle Harbor Unit.

When New Rochelle Police Sergeant Joe Salerno is on patrol, he may encounter speeders, medical emergencies, or intoxicated operators. He also encounters vessels that are literally dead in the water. That’s because Salerno leads the New Rochelle Harbor Unit, a full-time, certified Police Marine Unit established in the mid-1930s to patrol New Rochelle’s nine-mile shoreline and support neighboring communities, Westchester County, and New York City, whose waters border the Queen City on the Sound.

This 33-foot SAFE patrol-and-rescue craft features the latest technology so that boaters can enjoy happy motoring on the Sound.
This 33-foot SAFE patrol-and-rescue craft features the latest technology so that boaters can enjoy happy motoring on the Sound.

Salerno and his righthand (sorry, starboard-hand) man, Officer Mike Dassler, are New Ro natives who originally joined the New York City Police Department, then transferred home to join the New Rochelle force, where Salerno has worked for 23 years and Dassler for 14. Salerno took the Harbor Patrol Unit in 2020. Both were eager to discuss their work and their fleet.

The Harbor Unit has a small fleet of various boats: one inflatable 8-foot rig, similar to those used for rescues after last October’s Hurricane Ida; a 23-foot Boston Whaler patrol boat; a 28-foot North River patrol and rescue boat; an 18-foot utility Boston Whaler, for simple work around the harbor; and a new 33-foot Secure All-Around Flotation Equipped (SAFE) patroland-rescue boat, which offers the latest technology. For you concerned taxpayers, the SAFE boat did not cost New Rochelle or Westchester County a penny: Funding came from the Department of Homeland Security’s Port Security Grant Program.

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New Rochelle has many marinas, with hundreds of members, as well as numerous day-boaters who drop their crafts from ramps into the harbor. Unlike on land, where municipalities’ borders and jurisdictions are clearly defined, all harbor patrols on both sides of Long Island Sound cooperate when boaters are in distress because they might not accurately report their locations.

All New Rochelle Harbor Unit officers are certified CPR responders, and Dassler holds a SCUBA certification — vital if a passenger is pinned beneath a boat. By the way, forget those Travel Channel videos depicting SCUBA divers in Caribbean waters enjoying virtually unlimited visibility. In the dark, cloudy waters of Long Island Sound, divers may only be able to see four feet in front of their faces.

Salerno no longer owns a boat, but Dassler has been close to the water his entire life: “My folks say I was born in May and on the water in June,” he says. His maritime skill and love of his job became evident during our afternoon on the Sound. Strong winds were blowing, and Salerno and Dassler pointed out locations where rocks that could rip a boat apart hid just beneath the surface and how onboard instrumentation helped them identify these obstructions and navigate safely

If your definition of “technological assistance” while boating is a crumpled-up map of Long Island Sound, you’d be astounded by the array of electronic devices. The view from the captain’s chair looks like one from an airplane cockpit. Many recreational boaters have similar electronic aids, which Salerno says may make them over-reliant on technology and therefore inclined to spend perhaps too much time looking at the screen instead of the water.

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Another benefit that may hurt is, ironically, the 911 line. Summoning help is much easier and efficient when boaters use a dedicated emergency signal, VHF16.

The New Rochelle Harbor Unit’s SAFE Boat

Features include:

A camera for thermal imaging, night vision, and infrared detection to recognize released heat from vessels or persons who might not otherwise be visible.

Underwater sonar scanning and 3D imaging.

“Skyhook” technology, which automatically maintains fixed position.

A radiation detection system to locate any sort of hazardous or radioactive materials in the water.

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Patrol season starts in mid-May, with two shifts from 8 a.m. to midnight, through the end of September. Recreational boating usually winds down as the weather cools, but sportfishing boats often go out well into autumn, as fishing is good in colder waters.

While Salerno and Dassler were proud to show off their boats and their capabilities, they were even more eager to discuss important tips for safer boating.

Salerno says, “The biggest problem is reckless operation, followed by lack of basic navigational skills, over-reliance on GPS and other tools, and lack of respect for the weather, winds, waves, tides, and natural obstacles. Too many boaters see a beautiful, sunny day and venture out without having enough experience.”

“What every boater should know,” says Dassler, “is that if your boat dies, drop anchor immediately. This will make the boat stationary and prevent it from capsizing.”

Although slips and falls are the most common injury seen by the harbor patrol, the biggest problems come not from inebriated yachtsmen but rather from people on Jet Skis, especially at night, and paddleboarders and kayakers, whose tiny craft can drift outward into the Sound by changes in tides and currents. Somewhat surprisingly, sailboats are more likely to encounter difficulty because some sailors believe that the shape of the sail and the height of the mast will make it easier to right a boat that has tipped over.

Boating courses will be required starting in 2025, when safety certificates (like driver’s licenses) will be required for anyone operating a boat in New York State waters.

Since the pandemic restricted travel, many people spent more time on boats they owned or purchased their first boats. This has led to long waits for boats, which have continued into 2022.

Many think you can gauge a person’s wealth by the size of their boat, but Salerno and Dassler say many boats that seem like little more than motorized dinghies are often owned by top corporate executives or wealthy professional people who don’t feel the need to own (read: show-off) a boat that cost six or even seven figures.

At the end of an enjoyable, interesting day, motoring around the New Rochelle Harbor and Long Island Sound with Salerno and Dassler gave me a new appreciation of, and respect for, boating. So much so that if either man were to leave New Rochelle and open a charter service in Florida or the Caribbean, I’d be happy to be their Gilligan.

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