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 enforce 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.

How Does a Coast Guard Boarding Differ From a Stop by Police?

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 follow 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 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.

What Does a Boarding Look Like?

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.

What Happens During a Boarding?

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:

• Engine Compartment: Coast Guard officials will want to see your engine compartment. They may check the bilges and look for carbon monoxide placards. If they see other issues such as hull integrity or flammability problems, they will also pay attention to this and might deem the boat not safe to be in the water.

• Life Jackets: The PFD requirements for your boat need to meet the water type, the size and age of the respective passenger, and the total number of passengers on board. This is probably the number one violation that the Coast Guard finds.

• Paperwork: Your registration numbers and sticker need to be up to date and clearly displayed on your boat. Your boating registration needs to match these numbers and your name. If you are renting a boat, you should have a copy of the agreement (a digital copy is fine) that shows you have permission to operate the vessel. If you are in a state that requires a boaters safety certificate to operate a boat, be ready to show this as well.

• First Aid and Signaling Items: The items in your first aid kit should be up to date and not expired, and your flares should be up to date as well. This is a common violation as many do not realize that flares can expire.

• Garbage and Toilet: These items on the inspection list surprise people. However, they are common areas of inspection. Above the garbage should be a placard that explains what can be disposed of and where. It is created by the MARPOL convention of pollution from ships. The cards are available at any maritime store. They also may check to make sure that your toilet is routed to your holding tank and not overboard if you are in an area where dumping of bathroom waste is prohibited.

• Escape Hatches: Depending on the location of your escape hatches, they may want to ensure that they open correctly.

• Fire Extinguishers: These should be located in several locations, should have the correct coding for the possible fires on your boat, and must be up to date.

• Alarms: Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms should be located in all enclosed living spaces and functioning correctly.  A carbon monoxide warning sticker should be placed in locations where it is deemed necessary.

• Bilges: All bilges should be functioning correctly. The Coast Guards might test them if they have a manual setting.

• Horn and Lights: They may check that all of your lights as well as your horn or alternate sound signaling device are functioning correctly.

• Other Signaling Equipment: If you are on a dive boat, they may check that you have a diver down flag that you can hang when needed. The same is true for other specialized signal equipment.

• Special Equipment: Life rafts, davit cranes, and other pieces of equipment that have specific safety rules may be inspected.

Can you ask questions?

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.

What happens if there is a violation?

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.