By Scott Brand
Posted Jun 05, 2011 @ 05:18 PM
This is not your redneck airboat.
Forget virtually everything you think you know about airboats from television programs over the last 40 years, because the Chippewa County Sheriff Department has acquired its own version which only slightly resembles the traditional watercraft.
“You can go in water as shallow as 4 inches and, as long as you’ve got some speed up, you can go across some dry ground,” said Deputy Kip Moeggenborg while piloting the craft on the St. Marys on Friday. “We’ve put it on dry ground off the Charlotte River and once you get it moving it will take right off.”
The 21-foot aluminum boat, powered by an eight-cylinder Corvette motor has a top speed in excess of 40 miles and hour when the conditions are right. On the ice, Moeggenborg admits, the set-up will go fast enough to even scare the operator.
“This boat is really designed for the Upper Peninsula and our weather conditions,” said Chippewa County Sheriff Robert Savoie during the tour. “They build it to our needs.”
With a gas pedal and steering wheel, the airboat drives pretty much like an automobile as it travels across the water. It can comfortably handle at least eight adults inside the large heated cabin. While there can be plenty of splashing water depending on the weather at the time of operation, the occupants remain warm and dry throughout the trip.
Heated windows and windshield wipers provide a clear line of sight under even the harshest conditions. “Everything will really ice up good in the winter if there’s any kind of open water,” said Moeggenborg, underscoring the importance of the heated windows. A Global Positioning System installed on the airboat’s dashboard provides instantaneous information invaluable during the vessel’s primary duty: search and rescue operations. “It will tell you where you’ve been and where you need to go,” said Moeggenborg.
In addition to Moeggenborg, three other individuals — Roger Jacobson, Albert Dumback and Wes Gregg — have undergone the three-day training required to operate the vessel. With seven different boats at their disposal — including those designed to take on the big waters of Lake Superior and the St. Marys River to small vessels for use on inland lakes and smaller streams — the sheriff department can respond to virtually any water emergency.
Most of the fleet is stored in Kinross to keep it in a central location, but there are boats in the Sault and Paradise for quick access at these two sites. “What’s the emergency and what do we need?,” said Savoie of the thought process that goes into each and every search and rescue operation. “We train and prepare for emergency response.” “The boat has already paid for itself,” said Jacobson, recalling the winter rescue operation of a man and his grandson on Munuscong Bay. “It saved two lives.”
“You can’t put a dollar value on a human life,” Savoie quickly added.
From a financial standpoint, the new airboat didn’t cost the county a dime as an Operation Stone Garden Grant through the federal government provided 100 percent of the purchase price. “Our gas and labor are the only cost to the county,” said Savoie, crediting 911 Director Tim McKee for accessing the grant funds.
Moeggenborg was initially hired to the sheriff department in 1994. The Lake Superior State University graduate is now in his ninth year as a marine officer — requiring him to not only respond to emergencies at all times of night and in all kinds of weather, but to keep everything in top running order. “Kip takes it very seriously; he’s dedicated to his job,” said Savoie “It does you no good to show up and find the tire is flat on the trailer.” Moeggenborg is also responsible for most of the maintenance on the department’s fleet. “Most of the stuff I can fix,” said Moeggenborg. “It’s part of the job — routine maintenance we do ourselves.” When it comes to the airboat and all of its electronic components, he admits he is in a little over his head. “This engine,” he said over the roar of the Corvette motor, “I’m not touching it.”