RICHMOND -- Rebekah Ireland-Clark is at ease gripping the wheel of a 23-foot boat, knifing its aluminum hull through the cold chop of San Pablo Bay.
"There's nothing quite like it," Ireland-Clark yells over the din of wind whips, water sprays and piston whines of an aging outboard motor. "Out here, it's so beautiful, so open, but danger kind of hangs out beneath the surface, you have to be ready to help at any time."
Ireland-Clark is the longest-serving, and only woman, member of the city's five-person marine unit, a small but proud group of officers who spend part of their days trolling Richmond's 32 miles of shoreline in two department boats. The unit was created in 2006 as a replacement for a full-time patrol that was dry docked in 2004 due to a local fiscal crisis.
The reprised group is a mix of sea dogs and reformed landlubbers who spend a few shifts per week on the water, watching the city's coast, working with other Bay Area marine units, plucking people from disabled vessels and, occasionally, fishing dead bodies from the water. Sgt. Felix Tan, the unit supervisor, said his team works on a shoestring maintenance budget of about $16,000 per year, just enough to keep their two boats afloat.
Ireland-Clark has the most nautical chops, with a background working in commercial shipping and a stint on the marine unit before its 2004 shutdown. Officers Joe DeOrian, Jason Silva and Matt Stonebraker, all veterans of Richmond's streets, are relative newcomers to seafaring.
"We all learn a lot from Rebekah," said Stonebraker, a strapping cop who spends his traditional shifts patrolling the city's rugged Iron Triangle. "You have to respect the water and be willing to learn from people who know it better than you do."
Richmond's shoreline is usually patrolled two or three days per week. Officers have a list of priority sites they check, Tan said. The agenda includes the Chevron long wharf where hulking tankers from around the world offload crude, the San Rafael Bridge and Richmond's inner harbor and port.
On a recent cool gray morning, Ireland-Clark, DeOrian and Stonebraker idled both boats' engines in their Marina Bay slips. More than a dozen Richmond SWAT officers in full gear rumbled down the ramp and loaded onto the larger vessel -- a 28-footer -- squatting to brace for the sway as the boat piloted by DeOrian and Stonebraker peeled off.
Minutes later, they carefully steered the boat within a few feet of the barnacled pilings of the abandoned Point Molate docks, the craft tossed by rough water as the SWAT officers hopped from bow to dock. .
Ireland-Clark watched the training exercise from her 23-footer about 200 yards away. The practice run should help the marine unit and the SWAT team be ready in the event of a terrorist attack or other situation where an amphibious landing is needed.
"It's not easy," she said. "If you misjudge, you can slam against those pilings."
Later that morning, Ireland-Clark cut north along the shore at just under 20 knots. Massive tankers to the west, docked at Chevron, loomed more than 100 feet above the water surface. Wearing police blues and bright orange fingernails, she scanned the choppy turquoise waters, deftly angling the hull into softer swells.
There have been no "Miami Vice"-style drug busts on the water, she said, but plenty of action unfolds off Richmond's shores.
In 2003, she was part of the multiagency search for Laci Peterson.
"We spent endless hours looking for Laci," Ireland-Clark said. "I can't really explain why, but I was on a mission."
Peterson's body was eventually discovered on Richmond's Point Isabel Regional Shoreline park, an area Ireland-Clark had combed repeatedly. "I replayed the search in my head a lot," she said.
In recent years, Ireland-Clark has plucked bodies from the water ("Jumpers from the Carquinez Bridge," she said) and spotted whales more than twice as large as her boat. Most satisfying, she said, was the time she saved a father and two daughters whose sailboat had capsized near the San Rafael Bridge.
Every member of the marine team lights up with talk of a new boat. After years of coaxing sea hours from its aging seahorses, the unit has a custom 37-foot catamaran-style jet boat on order. Three-quarters of the $800,000 cost is being paid by a Department of Homeland Security grant, with the city kicking in the other $200,000, Tan said. Construction of the new vessel is set to begin in February.
"With the new jet boat, we'll be able to access some of the shallower waters of the bay," Tan said. "More coverage is a good thing."