July 2008

Tom Hodgins: Beaufort County's Marine Patrol

Author: Craig Hysell

Nine years ago, Sergeant Tom Hodgins found himself standing before the Interview Board of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. When they asked Hodgins why he wanted to be a cop, the retired Navy man of 22 years asked if he could answer that question with a question of his own. “Go ahead,” came the reply.

“What’s your favorite color?” asked Hodgins.
“Yellow.”
“Why is yellow your favorite color?” The Board didn’t have an answer. “That’s the same reason I wanted to be a cop,” Hodgins says today. “I don’t know why, I’m just attracted to it.”

The Marine and Beach Patrol Unit of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is a fairly new addition to its police force. “I had no knowledge that there would eventually be a marine patrol position here,” says Hodgins. However, at the request (and cost) of the Town of Hilton Head Island the Unit was created six years ago and Hodgins is the marine patrol’s sole officer. He purveys an aura of stout common sense and matter-of-fact seafaring wisdom.

In what are basically modified bass boats, Hodgins has two vessels at his disposal for patrolling the myriad breadth of Beaufort County’s waterways, including Dafuskie Island. By working closely with South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Coast Guard, Hodgins feels his Unit and DNR are able to accomplish the goals of any tax funded patrol force. “It works out real well. The public doesn’t feel harassed but we’re getting to check boats and make sure people have what they need to stay safe.”

And that’s what Hodgins is most adamant about: safety. His advocacy comes across as colloquial, more of a universal take on the nature of oceans and tidal creeks than obsessive, obtuse zealotry.

If you’ve ever seen what people look like after they’ve come in contact with an oyster bed—or felt a jagged oyster’s burning slice yourself—you’re going to tell people to remain cautious and aware. If you’ve ever pulled a lifeless, bloated body out of the water because they weren’t wearing a life jacket, you’re going to make sure people have the necessary flotation devices onboard. If you’ve ever tried to find a victim radioing for help who can’t operate their GPS to relay a fixed position, you’re going to recommend people take a boater safety course with DNR or the Coast Guard. (And learn how to read longitude and latitude markings…)

Water can be fun, but it is merciless. And when things go wrong, they go wrong in a hurry. Hodgins can tell you by experience that if you are ill-equipped or unprepared you will get hurt, or worse, you will die. If that sounds overly dramatic, ask yourself, what you would do if your boat suddenly began taking on water. Do you have friends or family onboard? Can they swim? Do they know how to put on a life jacket?

The next time you’re safe in your house when that sudden, nasty thunderstorm comes up, imagine what it would be like on a boat with no help around. Do you know where your flares are? What would you do if your boat caught fire? Has the charge on your fire extinguisher expired? How would you call for help? In a world without street signs, do you know where you are on the water?

If you can begin to understand that the ocean, the tide and oyster beds demand respect, you can begin to respect Sergeant Hodgins perspective. It’s not that people are defiant (for the most part), they’re just unaware. “I probably write more warnings or citations for either insufficient or improper life jackets as well as fire extinguishers.” But, “I give them one of two choices. You can come to court and show me a fire extinguisher and a receipt so I know you didn’t borrow it from your buddy, and I’ll tear the ticket up. If you see me before your court date, and you’ve solved the problem, wave me down and I’ll tear the ticket up. That’s as fair as I can be.”

While Hodgins responds to any call or mission in Beaufort County, as well as the Atlantic when his boat can handle the waves, his main patrol is in the waters around Hilton Head Island. At a Public Safety Committee Regular Meeting on August 1, 2005, Lieutenant Toby McSwain reported the marine unit’s quarterly statistics (meaning Hodgins’ quarterly stats) to the Town of Hilton Head. Hodgins made 278 boat stops— those instances when he comes into contact with another boater, boards the boat and performs an inspection. He had 9 boater assist stops, went to 8 back-up calls involving South Carolina Wildlife and wrote 77 uniform traffic tickets—being very strict on no wake zones. (Idle speeds cut down significantly on property damage.) Hodgins stays busy.

And loves what he does for a living.

“There’s nothing like the first thing in the morning, when the sun is just coming up, and you’re on patrol in these marshes. Same thing at the end of the day. The sun’s setting. It’s nice, and quiet, and calm. You see dolphins topping the water…” Hodgins smiles and sighs his appreciation.

Later, he picks absently at the stern of his boat. It is resting on the trailer, getting ready for a day’s work. The Beaufort County Marine Patrol Unit can beat the other agency’s average response time to calls by 45 minutes, but Tom’s voice is quiet. “I turn down an average of 16 calls a year. That’s the worst, when somebody’s in trouble and I can’t help them. When the boat can’t handle the weather or they’re too far out in the ocean…that bothers me.” It’s the first time all day Hodgins spirit seems to dent. Sometimes those minutes he can’t get to people turn into lifetimes.

Surfing pioneer, Tom Blake, once etched into a rock decades ago, “Nature = God”. You’ve got to be aware out there. Safety first. That’s as fair as it’s going to get.

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