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Coast Guard Boarding: What to Expect

March 25, 2013

While anchored in Dusenbury Pond we saw few other boats. Fishing boats putzed through on the weekends, jet skiers circled us several times, and FWC hung around for an afternoon. Then, we seemed to become very popular. National Park Service Rangers hailed us and pulled alongside for a "safety inspection." We have been boarded several times by many different agencies in various countries. (Colombian Coast Guard off San Andres was by far the most pleasant such experience.) But we had never before had a day like this one turned into.

The Rangers asked for our papers. On Eurisko they are easy to access. We have a "clearing in" bag with all our paperwork, passports, necessary photocopies and a pen. But on Walküre, since we never plan to clear into a foreign country, I wasn't exactly sure where our boat papers were. I finally rummaged through the right pile of "important papers" and found our boat registration. The Rangers also asked to see our lifejackets (we have 6 of them onboard for the 2 of us: two of them are Type I's), flares (we have a dozen including 4 new ones we bought especially for cruising on Walküre since our old Eurisko ones were outdated), and fire extinguishers, of which we have three--two inside and one on deck. They asked us how long we planned to stay (don't get me started on Florida's ever-changing anchoring laws and the legality of some of them), where we lived (boy, that's a hard one to answer!), and where we were headed. They never boarded the boat, though they did ask if we had any weapons onboard. We always answer that question with, "Depends on what you call a weapon. We have a machete and a flare gun." In Bermuda a flare gun is considered a weapon and is confiscated while you are in port and quite frankly, a machete can be an excellent weapon. The "safety inspection" lasted about a half hour, interfered only with lunch, and was not terribly intrusive or aggravating. But the day was young.


Apparently we looked unsafe

That afternoon Dave made pizza crusts on the stove top for the first time. When we put on the toppings and heated them up for dinner it took longer than we had expected and we were anxious for them to finish so we could tell if his experiment worked. Just as we were getting ready to serve them we heard, "Ahoy." What now? A large triple-engine Coast Guard boat was pulling up alongside us. Are you kidding me? My mouth started running before either Dave or my brain could stop it. I was less than pleased to be subjected to the second "Safety Inspection" in one day. Did we suddenly become unsafe somewhere between lunch and dinner?
"Your timing is impeccable. I suppose you want pizza, too, since you're here!"
"No ma'am, we're just here to do a Safety Inspection."
Dave chimed in before my mouth got us into trouble.
"We were just inspected a few hours ago by the Park Rangers."
"Did they give you a paper?"
Damn, I knew we should have asked for a "get out of jail free" card.

The Coast Guard inspection was a bit longer and more detailed. In addition to asking for our registration (which I now knew exactly where it was), they also asked for Dave's identification. Only then did it dawn on us that the Rangers hadn't. They asked to see lifejackets (still handy from the last inspection), flares (here we go again), and fire extinguishers. Unlike the Park Rangers, they also asked for either a sound device or a whistle. We have both. The whistles are on the lifejackets. The horn is a tube with a plastic membrane over the end. We asked him if he'd like for us to show him how loud it was, but apparently he has heard them before, because he quickly declined. Also unlike the Rangers, this time we were actually boarded. Two Coasties came onboard, one of them came below to inspect the rest of the boat. He asked to see our bilges, which on Walküre is a little space hardly big enough for the bilge pump. He also asked about our holding tank. We explained we have a composting head, and since you can see it from the companionway I assume he could visually verify that claim. The visit only lasted long enough for our pizza to get cold and me to get pissed off. This time we received what the Coast Guard calls a "Gold Form" which shows that we recently passed a Safety Inspection. He said this may not necessarily stop someone else from boarding us, but it may help.

With the exception of not being on a registered mooring when we were "inspected" on St. Croix years ago, we have always passed these inspections. The fact that our home can be searched without probable cause goes against our Fourth Amendment rights, but that is a right that American citizens give up when they live on a boat. We can be searched by the USCG in ANYONE's waters, anywhere in the world. Likewise, they can search foreign boats anywhere in US waters.

The trick to surviving a Coast Guard inspection is, naturally, to comply with all the CG regulations. Many of these change with the size and propulsion of your vessel. The CG offers a "virtual safety inspection" that allows you to determine whether you would pass an inspection if you were stopped. The virtual inspection and the form the CG uses during an inspection are available here.

The second inspection in one day was more than I could remain polite for, but we have discovered over the years that the inspections are usually quick, the Coasties friendly and courteous, and the easier you make their job the easier they make your life. Until floating homes are afforded the same Constitutional rights as homes on land, we will have to suffer through these invasions of our privacy the best we can.

Have you been subjected to official boardings? What experiences have you had? Feel free to share on Facebook or using the Contact Us link above.

Dave modified a recipe for a tasty snack that usually requires an oven. MONDAY we'll share how to prepare this treat on the stove top.

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