“Another ugly winter day in Santa Barbara”

Officer Jeff Browning’s voice is dry and level. He is looking out over the bow of his harbor patrol boat at a crowd of yachts and warships bobbing at anchor. It’s a bright blue afternoon; the temperature is perfect, and Browning throws the boat into high gear. The boat launches into the air, bounces up and over a wave, lands with a jolt and takes off again.

Browning loves it. He’s off to rescue a fisherman.

If you ask Browning what his job duties are, he becomes flustered and asks how much time you have. The answer is a lengthy and complex one. Though his badge reads “Harbor Patrol Officer,” that label doesn’t hint at the range of tasks he is obligated to fulfill. Scouring the waters for troublemakers or walking along the seaside like a security guard are jobs that represent only a fraction of his duties. He refers to himself as a “jack of all trades,” a moniker I find more fitting but equally vague.

Right now he is playing tow-man to a stranded boat, but in the course of a day Browning could be called to play any number of roles, from bouncer at a local State Street bar to rescue responder for the airport, to environmental watchdog, to keeping an eye out for oil and fuel spills and busting people for dumping. Harbor patrol officers never really know what they’re going to be doing from moment to moment. They are “slaves to the radio,” tuned in to every frequency.

Browning seems to throw a new job description out every few minutes. “The job is like being sheriff of a small self-contained city.” The Santa Barbara harbor has about 1,130 “slips,” or parking spots for boats, all but about 70 of which are permanently occupied. Of the permanent habitants, many are people that live on their boats year round, making a large aquatic neighborhood parallel to the city. It’s an area the HP has almost exclusive jurisdiction over, and Browning, who has been working as an officer for eight years, claims to be on a first-name basis with nearly everyone. The word “sheriff” doesn’t completely cover his duties to this small community, though. He also plays the role of landlord, collecting rent, issuing temporary slips to visitors and tourists, and evicting deadbeats. This is in addition to the harbor patrol officer’s duties as medic and occasional mediator of disputes in the harbor community. The list of responsibilities stretches on.

In Santa Barbara there are three representatives of Public Safety. There’s the police officer, the fire fighter, and the harbor patrol officer. Harbor patrol officers often have to take on the roles of the other two. When the State Street pier went up in blazes in 1998, for example, the harbor patrol was the first on the scene, dousing the inferno with steady streams of sea water from one of the large motorized pumps on every harbor patrol boat, before the fire department and news vans made their appearances.

Manning this ship’s pump is Ian Sadecki, a college student at both Oxnard College and Santa Barbara City College who is working to become a fire fighter. Because the training is similar, the job he holds as a crew member on harbor patrol boats is an excellent addition to his resume. The job entails keeping the equipment up to snuff, firing up the boats when it’s time to hit the sea, and doing odd jobs.

Unlike the harbor patrol officers, Sadecki is not a trained Peace Officer and therefore does not carry a gun. Harbor patrol officers carry them for protection when they have work as law enforcement officers. In some areas of California, like Newport Beach, the harbor patrol is a division of the Sheriff’s department, not a separate entity. I ask Browning if he’s ever had to use the pistol, maybe on drug smugglers or pirates, and he tells me no. My corny joke gets no laugh, as expected.

Just for kicks, we make a circle around the 800-foot-long warship anchored in the harbor, for it truly is a sight to see. Santa Barbara is a popular spot for the Navy to come and unwind, so there’s almost always a ship docked offshore. The harbor patrol is involved in this as well, taxiing sailors onto the mainland when needed and staying far away otherwise.

For fear of being blown to smithereens, we slow to a speed of 5 mph as we circle the massive vessel, careful to remain a distance of 100 yards away as per the rules since 9/11. Browning seems to know the monolith well, pointing out the ships’ missile interceptors and gun turrets.

I had seen a Navy ship similar to this the last time I was on the ocean, taking my out-of-state mother on a tour to see the dolphins and sea lions. I tell him about my last cruise and he lights up at the mention of sea lions.

“We’ve all got our sea lion adventures,” he tells me with a chuckle. I settle in for another job description. In a nutshell, it’s that harbor patrol officers capture and transport aquatic animals on a regular basis. They help sick dolphins, elephant seals and sea lions, which were getting ill and dying by the dozens a few years back due to a domoic acid outbreak. Browning said the sea lions are the most colorful of this faction, owing both to their belligerence towards mankind and to their sharp teeth. They make for stories simultaneously humorous and disconcerting.

“Sea lions attack surfers sometimes,” Sadecki says. “Those suckers try to nibble on people’s legs while they catch waves. It’s happened to me.” I imagine one of these flabby creatures on the offensive and the thought makes me smile, though I’m sure it would be pretty frightening, like an angry manatee that had become capable of inflicting harm.

About this time we reach our destination, a grisly looking boat with an equally grizzled occupant. Sadecki throws him a rope, the fisherman ties it to the back of his boat, and we’re off, dragging his algae-riddled vessel behind us toward the docks. I offer him a wave and a smile, which he doesn’t return. Too sea-weary, apparently. Plastic garbage pails overflowing with crabs litter his deck.

Back at the docks, we pull the fisherman’s inanimate boat up to the side of our own and nudge it into its slip using our ship’s frame. We leave him to unload his catches and head back to home base, the station. Sadecki points out his favorite boats along the way, all of which are extravagant, large, and probably expensive to an obscene degree.

Inside the station, an office above harbor shops with large windows facing the sea, I meet two of the harbor patrol’s most illustrious members, Officer Brian Quittner and Sergeant Edward Stetson. Both are former California Boating Safety Officers Association Officers of the Year. Quittner was bestowed the award two years ago after finding an elderly man that had fallen off his boat. What the Coast Guard helicopters weren’t able to do with their bird’s-eye-view, Quittner did using calculations of wind speed, current and timing. He pinpointed with extreme precision where the man had drifted, and though I’m told that the man was found with only his lips above the water, the 78-year-old recovered. Sergeant Stetson, who has taught underwater diving at UCSB since 1980, got his award a decade ago for rescuing people from a sinking ship. These feats are discussed like they’re nothing big; just another day at the office.

Quittner and Stetson are both personable and easygoing men, like everyone I’ve met at the station. It is a job that no one seems eager to leave, evidenced by the fact that nearly every officer has been at it for over a decade, one of them for 22 years. They get together and go on snowboarding trips together. They have kids who play together. The Harbor Patrol seems less an occupation to these guys and more a lifestyle. To many, it is not a springboard to bigger and better things. This is the end of the line, as good as it gets.