After 50 years, legendary Harbor Patrol deputy has pretty much seen and done it all
They popped up out of the ocean like huge corks.
“Weirdest thing I saw in my life,” says Terry Smith, an Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputy who has been patrolling the county’s harbors and coast for 50 years.
A fisherman reported the mysterious bales popping up, one by one, above the surface of the sea about two miles off San Mateo Point, near Trestles. The bales turned out to be 14,000 pounds of marijuana — about $3 million worth.
“We never did figure out where they came from,” Smith says of the dope, seized by the OCSD Harbor Patrol about a decade ago. Drug smugglers, he says, may have hidden them under the water using a time-release mechanism.
Smith, recently presented with a special Sheriff’s Award by OCSD’s Sandra Hutchens, is full of sea stories — most involving rescues of boaters in serious peril.
He’s a beloved legend among harbor deputies, most of who were years away from being born when he started in 1967. The Sheriff’s Department didn’t even begin overseeing the county’s harbors and beaches until 1975. When Smith started, at age 24, he was an employee of the county’s Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division.
“When the Sheriff’s Department took over…Terry simply changed his uniform and kept working,” Hutchens told attendees at her agency’s Medal of Valor luncheon on March 23.
Although greatly honored by the recognition, Smith says he “felt a little out of place” being singled out at a ceremony that showers attention on deputies who saved lives.
But over the years, Smith has saved many lives (more on that later).
And since he probably knows the harbors and waters off Orange County’s 48 miles of coastline better than anyone, he’s a priceless resource for deputies assigned to the Harbor Patrol/Marine Operations Bureau.
“Having a deputy like Terry here, who knows how things are supposed to be done, and has such institutional knowledge and experience, is just irreplaceable,” said Lt. Mark Alsobrook.
As harbormaster, Alsobrook runs the OCSD’s Marine Operations, which provides around-the-clock law enforcement, marine firefighting, and search and rescue services along O.C.’s coastline and within the county’s three major harbors at Newport Beach, Sunset-Huntington and Dana Point.
Among the Harbor Patrol division’s 40 full-time deputies, seven sergeants, four dispatchers, a marine maintenance team and other professional staff, Smith’s employment status is unique.
He’s believed to be the only employee within all of the OCSD classified as “Extra Help” who essentially works full time.
Unlike the other seven “Working Retirees” he works with in Harbor Patrol, Smith is not limited to putting in 960 hours a year. And typical Extra Help employees are retired deputies who work limited hours for the agency.
Smith never retired from the OCSD.
On a recent weekday, Smith was assigned to mid-shift harbor patrol. As one of only a few deputies trained in dispatch, he filled in for the regular Newport Harbor dispatcher during her lunch break.
Then it was back on the water — Smith’s beloved “office” for the last five decades.
He steered past multi-million-dollar mansions in Newport Harbor, the biggest small-craft harbor in the world.
When he arrived at the mouth of the harbor, Smith blasted a horn and gestured for a returning yacht to slow down to the 5-mph speed limit within the harbor.
“Every time I leave the boat slip,” Smith says, “I look around and think, ‘They’re paying me to do this?’”
STUMBLED INTO IT
Raised in Buena Park, Smith was a young automotive teacher at Huntington Beach High School when he stumbled into a harbor patrol job.
In 1966, a woodshop teacher at Huntington High was a reserve Harbor Patrol deputy. He told Smith about the need, during the summer, for extra help to patrol Newport Harbor (Dana Point Harbor and Huntington Harbor didn’t exist yet).
“What’s Harbor Patrol?” Smith asked.
The next morning, Smith went in for an interview to become an OCSD reserve (the agency still had to deputize Harbor Patrol employees even though the OCSD didn’t take over Harbor Patrol until 1975).
The rest, they say, is history.
Smith nailed the interview, was deputized as an OCSD reserve, and after a year of training, he was bumped up to Extra Help status.
“That little conversation with the woodshop teacher is why I’m sitting here today,” Smith says.
Back in the mid-1960s, Newport Beach offered water skiing in the Back Bay (near where Jamboree Road is) and a “speed zone” over where the Newport Aquatic Center now stands.
Smith was hired to work in the summer keeping those areas safe. He continued doing so when he left Huntington Beach High and became a full-time instructor at Citrus College in Glendora.
When both Dana Point Harbor and Huntington Harbor opened in 1974, Smith devoted even more hours to his harbor patrol gig.
A few years later, Smith was assigned to special beach patrol duty.
For 10 years, Smith — who for several years took criminal justice classes at local community colleges —roamed the sands and sea from San Clemente to Laguna Beach, at times assisting regular patrol deputies on calls in coastal areas until they became incorporated cities.
He recalls nighttime beach-drinking parties of up to 200 revelers and making sure the sands were cleared of people by midnight.
Since 2000, when Smith retired from Citrus College after a 35-year career, he’s been working nearly full time as a deputy patrolling O.C.’s now-bustling three harbors.
Boats “dead in the water,” or drifting due to a lack of power.
Missing swimmers and surfers.
Last year alone, the OCSD Harbor Patrol/Marine Operations Bureau — which has 16 vessels, six of them fire boats and one a high-speed drug- and human-trafficking interdiction boat — responded to a total of 14,196 calls (the OCSD is responsible for patrolling waters up to three miles off the coast, but will respond beyond that if needed).
Of those calls, 2,328 involved rescues. The total mix includes criminal and non-criminal enforcement, as well as fire, medical aid and hazmat.
On many Harbor Patrol calls throughout the decades, Smith has been the reliably steady hand.
“He’s absolutely amazing,” said OCSD Sgt. Mike Scalise, who worked as a Dana Point Harbor Patrol sergeant for 13 years and now runs patrol in Stanton. “He has the best work ethic of any man I have ever witnessed, and he runs circles around the younger deputies.”
A couple of rescues stand out for Smith — as well as a close call while giving a journalist a ridealong on the high seas.
In the latter incident, Smith was being interviewed by an L.A. Times reporter years ago when, about three to four miles off Newport Beach, dense fog immediately rolled in.
“Just like that, boom,” Smith says.
The fog was so bad Smith couldn’t see the bow of his boat.
And the boat lacked a compass — something that would be unheard of today. And this happened way before cell phones with GPS technology were around.
Smith had to navigate his way back to shore by studying the angle of the swells.
“The current usually goes west,” he explains. “If you follow the current at a 45-degree angle, you eventually will hit land.”
The reporter fell silent during the scary trip.
Luckily, Smith was able to make it back to Crystal Cove and guide the boat back to the harbor.
“I didn’t miss (the harbor) by much,” Smith says.
He was worried the reporter was going to write about them getting lost.
A few weeks later, a package arrived for Smith. It was a compass paid for by the L.A. Times.
One memorable rescue happened mid-afternoon in the dead of winter.
Someone on a bluff in South Laguna reported seeing a possible sailboat in distress.
In was windy, swells were big 12-foot rollers, and Smith was patrolling solo.
It took him an hour to boat from Dana Point to South Laguna.
Smith started to doubt the caller had even seen anything —- “probably some guy drinking a hot toddy thinking he saw something when he didn’t.”
With darkness approaching and some four miles straight off the coast where Mission Hospital Laguna Beach now stands, Smith began cursing.
“If it gets dark, I’m dead,” he thought.
Then, for a split second, he saw it: what looked like a stick pointing upward. It quickly disappeared behind the angry swells, and then reappeared.
Then Smith found them: a young man and a young woman, probably not even 20 years old, on a 16-foot Hobie Cat whose sail had broken.
The teens were nearly hypothermic and vomiting.
Smith was able to yank them aboard his patrol boat and even tow their damaged boat to shore. Had he not found the couple, they would have been blown out to sea in the darkness. He found them just as it was getting dark.
“That was a white-knuckler call for me,” Smith says. “I was alone and worried about my own safety and me becoming part of the problem rather than the solution. But it turned out to be one of my most rewarding calls.”
On another memorable rescue call, Smith saved an entire family — parents and their three children — in a dicey nighttime rescue in South Laguna. The family’s boat had lost power, and waves were smashing it against a cliff at a spot lifeguards could not get to.
The OCSD had just launched its Duke air support unit, and Smith called for the helicopter to bathe the scene in bright lights for the 11 p.m. rescue.
“There were reefs all around, and I doubted we could get a safety line to them,” Smith says. “But on our first try we did, and they were able to hook the line up to a stern cleat so we could tow them back to Dana Point.
“That’s only time in my life after a call my knees were shaking.”
COVERED IN FOAM
Jim Slikker, a retired deputy who worked for years in Harbor Patrol and on the dive team, was only 5 when Smith began his career on the waters.
And even though Slikker has since retired, Smith still is doing harbor patrol
“The sergeants at the harbor know that Terry will always work if he is available,” said Slikker, who now works as a volunteer Public Service Responder on the OCSD’s Air Support Unit.
“He has forgotten more than most harbor deputies will ever know,” Slikker said.
Slikker recalled a call in 2010 concerning a boat fire off Corona del Mar.
After Slikker and Smith knocked down the blaze, Smith crawled onto the bow of the boat that was on fire so he could open a hatch cover and put a fire hose into the opening.
“The entire bow reignited and flames shot out of the opening about 10 feet into the air,” Slikker said. “Terry kept his cool and started putting water onto the fire. He got it out and got back onto our fireboat. About an hour later, we were putting out hotspots on the boat.
“One deputy on another fireboat got out foam equipment to smother any remaining fire or gas floating in the boat. It is very thick and has a foul odor to it. The other deputy slipped while putting foam onto the burned boat. He accidentally aimed the nozzle at Terry and covered him with foam. Terry looked like a giant ice cream cone.
“But Terry took it all in stride. He never has a bad word to say about anyone.”
‘LOVE WHAT I DO’
Smith has been married to his wife, Perry, for 32 years. They have two sons, Scott, a firefighter in Long Beach, and Ryan, an executive with Toyota in Texas. The Smiths, who live in south coastal O.C., have three grandsons.
Asked how long he will continue patrolling O.C. harbors and beaches, Smith was non-committal.
“I still have things to offer,” he says. “I love what I do, and I love the companionship. I especially love working with the young deputies.”
Of all the divisions within the OCSD, Harbor Patrol deputies suffer the most injuries — not surprising, since it’s a very physical job that involves working on an unstable platform with forces often working against them.
But Smith has escaped any serious injuries, and he’s being careful to make sure he never will.
“One day I stepped off a boat and rolled an ankle,” he says. “I wrapped it up and went back to work. I’m old school.”
Smith stays in shape by lifting weights and walking five miles every day.
So what’s Smith’s favorite spot along O.C.’s coast after all these years of patrolling — from when a scoop of sardines sold at a floating bait shop near the mouth of Newport Harbor for $1 (today, it’s $25)?
“Oh, Laguna Beach,” he says without hesitating.
Smith says he never tires of the beach — which partly explains his longevity at the OCSD.
“They’ve all accepted me here,” he says with a grin. “I’ve got them all fooled. They think I know what I’m doing.”