Shock! Launch tows car, Peter Hilt

Deodar ‑ Search and Rescue or Law Enforcement
Ian T Clarke
Bateman, $39.95
ISBN 1 86953 175 2

The preservation of life and property and the detection and apprehension of offenders are two fundamental responsibilities of the police and have been since the days of John Peel. Despite the massive changes in modern society these principles remain firmly established.

Ian Clarke’s book Deodar focuses on those aspects of the work of the police launch in Auckland. During the seventies and eighties when the author was the senior launchmaster, I was a detective sergeant in the Auckland police and spent some years as officer in charge of the wharf police criminal investigation branch. In that role I was responsible for criminal inquiry work on the Gulf islands. Waiheke Island at that time accounted for a lot of the time of my team as we dealt with offending ranging from stock rustling to drug offending, with a whole lot more in between.

The police launch Deodar was therefore an essential tool in our work as we travelled the harbour and gulf. I recall an occasion when we received a complaint of a stabbing on the Salvation Army‑owned Rotoroa Island.

It sounded very serious at the time and I asked the Deodar to depart forthwith to the island and hired an amphibian to transport detectives and other support staff to handle the crisis. My intention was that by the time the launch arrived the detectives would have completed their work and could return by sea along with anyone they decided might need to accompany them, voluntarily or otherwise.

In the event, the incident was not as serious as first thought and the costs I had incurred in hiring an aircraft suddenly assumed great importance in the minds of senior police officers, who with the benefit of hindsight considered that I had manifestly exceeded my authority. I was quickly summonsed to account for my extravagance. My plea to consider the situation confronting me fell into unsympathetic ears.

On another occasion very late at night there was a serious incident in Mount Roskill which a number of patrols were directed to attend. They were joined by a number who were not directed to go, but, as was the custom in those days, went anyway out of idle curiosity.

It became important to record precisely which patrols attended and the control room invited them to identify themselves over the police radio. It was a surprise to hear that the Deodar was in attendance at the scene several kilometres inland. It turned out that the crew had been returning to the launch in a police car after depositing a waterborne thief in the cells at Auckland central. They decided to join curious colleagues at the scene and used their call sign to record their presence with central.

Clarke’s book refers to other humorous incidents, such as the Deodar becoming the first police launch ever known to have towed a car. That was when an individual was apprehended trying to float a car in the harbour. He intended to tow it to the centre where he planned to remove the improvised but innovative buoyancy system and sink the car in the middle of the Waitemata.

There are countless other similarly amusing events just as there are in any branch of police service. They may not have seemed funny at the time but certainly do on later reflection ‑ particularly if the bosses didn’t find out, which thankfully was more often than not. Take the case of one journey the launch undertook from Waiheke Island transporting a troublemaking drunk the local police had arrested and wanted off the island. As Deodar passed North Head, the alarm was raised after a very young girl had reportedly fallen from one of the harbour ferries. The drunk was proving to be troublesome and the launchmaster decided to offload him to a land patrol on Devonport wharf. The prisoner decided to step on to the wharf steps himself. He jumped too early and ended up in the water between boat and wharf desperately clutching his ghetto blaster. He was rescued before being crushed and the exasperated crew continued with the search for the little girl.

The book deals extensively with the search and rescue role played by the launch. Such work accounted for about 50% of Deodar’s time. This work involved body recovery which was always unpleasant, no matter what the cause. There were frequent searches for people lost overboard or the victims of suicides and attempts. Stormy weather usually attracted requests to assist distressed or wrecked boats. That work required particular skills and is well described by the author.

Today, by comparison, search and rescue involves about 12% of police launch time. The rest is spent in dealing with an increase in water‑based criminal offending.

The search and rescue work now seems to be increasingly undertaken by an efficient and highly motivated volunteer service. Coastguard and other specialist organisations now play an exciting and important role on the Auckland Harbour. There is also an increased awareness in water safety education. These factors combine to release the Deodar to focus more on criminal offending than it did in the past.

On 11 December 1989 Deodar sank at her berth after being struck in the stern by a ship. It was an unfortunate final chapter in the log book of this interesting launch. Deodar’s replacement is appropriately described in the final chapter of the book. It is a well‑equipped vessel which will be better able to provide the type of service a developing harbour and gulf demands.

An amazing gesture of public generosity was largely responsible for the funding of the new police launch. That in itself is a salute to a highly respected branch of the police service in Auckland. The new Deodar will repay that generosity and support in the years ahead.

The book was written by a dedicated policeman. It is a very readable, factual and historical account of one branch of the police service in Auckland, a magnificent launch, and its “state‑of‑the‑art” replacement of the same name.

Peter Hilt is Member of Parliament for Glenfield. He was for a time a detective sergeant with the Auckland wharf police.

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