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Patrolling the Ancient Waters

June 17, 2022

By David Brand
Law Enforcement Coordinator, Florida Sheriffs Association 


The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit routinely patrols the same swirling waters that the Spanish Fleet did in the 16th Century when conquering Florida.

According to St. Johns County Sheriff Robert Hardwick, their Marine Unit is responsible for 221 square miles of water and have done tremendous work in leveraging federal, state, and local partnerships that have truly become the key to success. “There is no doubt in my mind that our agency members that are assigned to our Marine Unit have set the standard to follow nationwide.”

Sheriff Robert Hardwick

Not So Fast Jamestown, St. Augustine Was Here First

Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the United States. This was 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico, discovered Florida in 1513 while on an exploratory trip. The French later established a fort and colony near the mouth of the St. Johns River in the area of present-day Jacksonville that threatened Spanish interests in the area. This resulted in Spanish King Philip II dispatching Admiral Don Pedro Menendez de Avies to Florida to remove the French.

On September 8, 1565, Menendez landed on the shores of Florida and declared that the settlement would be named St. Augustine. St. Augustine was to serve two purposes: as a military outpost for the defense of Florida, and a base to launch Catholic missionary settlements throughout the southeastern part of North America. As the centuries rolled past, Spain’s resources were spread thin due, in part, to French invasions. This resulted in the Spanish colonies in East and West Florida being peacefully turned over to the United States.

Florida’s First Sheriffs

The genesis of the Florida sheriff can be traced back to when Florida, as a Spanish Colony, came under the Stars and Stripes when President James Monroe appointed Andrew Jackson the Commissioner and Provisional Governor. Consequently, jurisdiction establishing East Florida took place at St. Augustine on July 10, 1821. A week later, on July 17th, Andrew Jackson accepted the transfer of West Florida at Pensacola.

Before the territory was formerly organized by Congress on March 30, 1822, Jackson began issuing commands and ordinances. The establishment of a sheriff came in Section 4 of an ordinance promulgated by the governor on July 21, 1821. It provided that a sheriff. Court clerk, and judge would be appointed for the courts of the territory’s first two counties: St. Johns and Escambia. Subsequently, James R. Hanham was appointed sheriff in newly formed St. Johns County and James Pendelton was appointed sheriff of Escambia County. With the culmination of these events, the history of law enforcement and the legacy of the Office of Sheriff in Florida was born.

The Flagler Years, Growth and Tourism

In the mid-1880s, after visiting the old Spanish settlement, Henry Flagler decided to develop a winter resort there for the wealthy. As a former partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, he owned a railroad and hob-knobbed in the circles that had money to travel for recreation and to escape the harsh, cold winters in the north. By 1886, his railroad was linked to the big cities of the east coast providing a method of transit. The following year, he began construction on a series of glamourous hotels that resulted in St. Johns County becoming the winter mecca of the United States.

Henry Flagler

For decades, St. Johns County has been a tourist destination for world-wide travelers. In addition to the beaches and Old Town Promenade, festivals and cultural events are presented each year.

Patrolling Admiral Menendez’ Waters

The author had the privilege of riding with the Marine Unit to observe their daily patrol. Lt. Josh Underwood, the Commander of the Marine and Air Support Units, along with Deputy Richard Michaux, launched one of their vessels from the Public Safety Ramp off the Vilano Causeway to begin their mission. The boat was a 2019, 31 foot long Safeboat with a walk around cabin. The Safeboat, an acronym for “Secure All Around Floatation Equipment,” is powered by two 350 horsepower Mercury Outboard engines.

31’ Safeboat

Entering the Intercoastal Waterway, we passed by the shimmering marshes and tree filled scrub islands that must have looked the same to Admiral Don Pedro Menendez’ sailors who cruised the patrolled this same area. Motoring closer to the City of St. Augustine, the skyline changed from trees to the buildings and the ramparts of the Castillo de San Marcos fortress, now a National Monument.

Castillo de San Marcos                      

The primary mission of the Marine Unit involves the enforcement of applicable laws. Given the heat, rain, and cold weather during the winter, the environment can be challenging. A typical day may involve novice boaters that are not familiar with the operation of their vessels or the law and rules they must comply with. This may range from Boating Under the Influence to speeding through a no wake area.

On Patrol                                

Since they normally work alone, partnerships and networking with other marine law enforcement agencies that are out on the water is critical. Police officers answering calls in cars usually have a back-up officer a few minutes away. On the water, it may be an hour. A close professional relationship with the Fish & Wildlife Commission officers, St. Augustine Police Department Marine officers, U. S. Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Coast Guard ensures their effectiveness, efficiency, and safety.

U. S. Customs and Border Protection   

Search and Rescue is another vital function with their unit responding to 10-12 missions each month. Off-shore rescues are commonplace since the nearest Coast Guard station is about 45 minutes away. The day before the author rode on their patrol, a shrimp boat sunk when a rogue wave caused water to begin flooding into the craft. The sheriff’s helicopter located the boat sunk in 24 feet of water and put the rescue swimmer down to attach a float. The occupants were not there but were later located on shore after apparently swimming a half mile.

Lt. Josh Underwood and Deputy Richard Michaux        

When hurricanes approach, the unit patrols through the waterways and asks people who are on their sailboats and motor vessels if they plan to stay on the boat or go ashore. If the occupants say they are going to stay on the boat, the deputies get their names, along with the location of their boats, and forward them to the St. Johns County Emergency Management Office so they can be checked on after the hurricane passes. On once occasion, after their boats had been trailered inland for the storm, a boat occupant called to be rescued. Lt. Underwood was able to secure a Jet Ski, rode out during the hurricane, and rescued the man and three dogs.  Just another day at the office!