If you have boated on any major body of water in the United States, there is a good chance that you have seen a Coast Guard Vessel. This branch of the military has a unique task of enforcing US maritime laws and interacting with both Americans and foreigners. They perform random boardings of both recreational and commercial boats. When you are boarded by a coast guard vessel, fear not. If you have all of your paperwork, safety equipment, and required placards in place, then you will merely need to show that you understand law. If you do not, then you’ll typically be given an opportunity to fix this, so you boat more safely in the future.
There are two main ways in which these kinds of events differ. First, the Coast Guard regularly stops vehicles for a mere random inspection. If you are an active boater then it is common to be boarded every year or two. If the Coast Guard asks permission to board, they probably don’t believe that you have done anything wrong. You will often see them out on a busy day stopping a large number of vessels for routine checks. Second, the rules that the Coast Guard follows are different than that of the police. There is no protection of privacy from the Coast Guard like there is with police. They ask permission to be polite but will board your boat whether or not you agree. Also, they may inspect every corner of the boat as opposed to just what is in plain view. However, the police are limited to exploring the surface unless they see something that looks out of sorts.
Coast Guard boarding vessels can approach your boat in a number of ways. If they wish to come aboard, they will most likely hail you via the VHF channel and inform you of their intention. If you don’t respond, they may send a small boarding skiff, often with a flashing siren, toward your boat. Upon arrival, they may call over a loudspeaker to insist you let them board. Whatever method they choose, you should move out of the way of traffic if you’re in a shipping lane. You should then cut your engine to prepare for the boarding craft to arrive, unless they specifically tell you to keep your course. You may want to put fenders on the side of the boat where you want them to tie up.
Each boarding may be somewhat different in the number of people involved and is usually adjusted for the local environment. However, there are some standard procedures, which should take 15-30 minutes. The boarding party will often be at least three people. One of them will stay on the boarding vessel to ensure that it stays secure, one will tend to stay with the boaters, and the rest will examine different sections of the boat. They will begin by asking if there are weapons on the boat, and where they are located. You will not need to give them the weapons. You’ll just need to acknowledge their presence and location and possibly show a permit when state law requires. As they begin to inspect your boat, they may or may not examine everywhere, but they will at least go to the places that cause the largest safety concerns.
These areas include:
As a rule, the Coast Guard has a staff of highly professional men and women who are happy to answer curious boaters’ questions. Typically, they don’t want you to follow them as they perform their inspection. However, a guard will usually stay with you and can explain the inspection process or have a casual chat. If you act in a polite and respectful manner, the Coast Guards will act the same. So, yes, questions are welcomed.
The main goal of Coast Guard boardings is to ensure the safety of vessels in their waterways. If they find a violation on your boat, they will take necessary action based on the severity of the violation. If your vessel is deemed unfit to be in the water due to missing safety equipment or problems with the bilges then you may be escorted to shore and asked not to return to the water until the problem is corrected. This may or may not be the end of your boating day, as they ultimately want you safely on the water. For example, if you’re missing life jackets, they may merely escort you to the nearest marina shop, so you can buy life jackets.
If the problem is smaller than this, then they may give you a written warning explaining what needs to be fixed to be in compliance. This often includes smaller items like a missing MARPOL garbage placard or having a smoke alarm but not a carbon monoxide alarm. They may ask you to send proof later, or they may just tell you to fix it. Either way, your information will stay in their records so they will know of the previous violation if they stop you in the future. In some cases, they may recommend items or actions that can make your boat safer but are not strictly required by law. It will be your choice to follow up on these, and they will make it clear if something is not mandatory.
In cases where the violation is related to something illegal, then they will deliver the guilty party to the agency responsible for dealing with the crime that was committed. Coast Guard officials regularly catch poachers for Fish and Wildlife agencies, smugglers near international waters and other lawbreakers. Catching people like this comes with a risk to their safety. This risk is part of the reason that they sequester owners while going through the boat and do thorough searches of the area.
If you are a safe boater who regularly inspects and updates their safety equipment and maintains their vessel, then you have nothing to fear from a Coast Guard boarding. If you are found with a small violation and correct it quickly, then the blue flashing light of a curious boarding party will be no risk to you. It will merely be a chance to interact with the people whose goal is to keep you as safe as possible on the water and to rescue you when you are not.