The Coast Guard will likely board your boat at some point. Keep these 11 things in mind when it happens.
Spend enough time on the ocean and inevitably you’ll see the blue lights or get a call over the radio from the U.S. Coast Guard. The message: they want to come aboard your boat. At first the nerves kick in, and then everyone aboard watches sheepishly as the well-armed Coast Guard officers pull alongside the boat. A lot of boaters can relate.
The Coast Guard made more than 30,000 boardings in 2015, and if your offshore adventures are near ports, the international border or known smuggling regions, it’s only a matter of time before law enforcement will stop by. The Coast Guard has three primary reasons for boarding recreational boats: boater safety, security and environmental protection. Boaters will recognize the difference, especially if officers are approaching with guns drawn.
When the day arrives and the Coast Guard pays a visit, knowing what to expect can ease the anxiety. Do the right things — and don’t do the wrong things — and the sight of officers climbing aboard won’t cause undue panic.
What to Expect
After a Coast Guard crew reaches a boater either by radio or visual contact, they will pull alongside the boat, do a quick introduction and usually announce why they want to board the vessel. An officer will ask if there are any weapons aboard and the last time the Coast Guard was aboard. He will ask how many people are on board and instruct anyone belowdecks to come up top. Boarding officers will do a basic safety sweep, which includes checking the bilges to make sure the boat won’t sink during the inspection, and ask for paperwork to start the inspection process.
South Florida boater Steve David has been boarded by the Coast Guard five times, typically when he’s returning from a trip to Bimini to his port in Ft. Lauderdale.
“If they’re looking for contraband, they’re going to lift up a lot of stuff,” said David, a retired five-time Unlimited hydroplane driving champion. “They go through your closets, check under floorboards, look at seat cushions. You have to let them do their job.”
Once the officers have completed their inspection, they will give the captain the yellow copy of the 4100 boarding form (see “Good as Gold”). If there are no major issues, the captain can continue his voyage.
Most boaters don’t realize that when they leave for an offshore fishing trip they leave a major constitutional right at the docks. Americans are generally familiar with the Fourth Amendment and the requirement that law enforcement have probable cause to conduct a search or make an arrest. When it comes to the high seas, however, there is no probable cause. The Coast Guard can (and will) board your boat whether you like it or not.
“Usually a law enforcement officer would need probable cause and, in most cases, a warrant to be able to enter and search property and seize things, but when you’re out at sea you lose that right,” said Robert E. O’Connor, a maritime attorney with Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP in Philadelphia. “I think that’s probably a surprise for most people.”
The right of the Coast Guard to board a boat without probable cause dates back to the American Revolutionary War in 1790. Congress created the Revenue Cutter Service to combat smuggling and enforce tariff laws. Personnel had to get onto ships so they could view the cargo and assess tariffs. But there is also a practicality to waiving probable cause on the high seas, O’Connor said. Officers can’t be expected to go to court to seek a search warrant, especially when patrolling 20 miles offshore.
If the Coast Guard wants to board your boat, you can’t stop them. If you try, chances are you’ll get a trip back to shore in handcuffs.
When the day comes for a Coast Guard boarding, it pays to be prepared. Know exactly what safety equipment is required by getting a checklist at a local marine store or taking a class through the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Officers are going to do the standard check to make sure there are enough life jackets on board for all of the passengers and that children under age 13 are wearing the required life jacket. They’ll check for flares, a fire extinguisher, a noisemaker and an easily accessible throw ring with a line attached. During the safety check, officers will run the captain’s driver’s license and the boat registration.
The boarding will go much faster, according to Charles F. Herd Jr. of The Lanier Law Firm in Houston, if the Coast Guard-required safety equipment is easily accessible to the officers.
“If they are conducting a safety inspection and I’m the skipper of the boat and I’m resisting it, they’re going to assume that’s because I am going to fail the inspection,” Herd said. “They don’t want to be a pain in the tail, but they really want to be sure the vessels out on the water are safely operated and equipped.”
Coast Guard officials say the most common violations they find on recreational boats are expired flares, old fire extinguishers and not enough life jackets for passengers. To avoid citations for such infractions, pick a date each year (such as your birthday) to check and see if the flares and fire extinguishers have expired. Turn fire extinguishers upside down and feel if there is liquid moving around. If not, it’s time to replace it (or them), even if the indicator shows green.
“When we show up, we’re not here to teach you the law,” said the Coast Guard’s Lt. j.g. James Clyne. “We’re here to see if you’re in compliance with the law.”
Thou Shall not Protest
Putting up a strong protest will only make it more difficult for the captain and passengers. Be respectful and provide the information the boarding officers are asking for. Clyne knows it can be annoying to be stopped by the Coast Guard, especially if you are in the midst of day outing with your family.
“We try to be efficient and polite,” Clyne said, a task made easier “(if) you just go along with what the officer’s asking for. The faster you can provide the information he wants, the faster he’ll be gone.”
Captains should ask questions of the boarding officers, but they need to know when to keep quiet and let the officers complete their work.
“I would try not to have a tone and (ask) confrontational questions,” O’Connor said. “If the questioning comes across with a more curious tone, then I think it’s certainly within your rights to ask.”
Legal Weed (Not Really)
Although recreational marijuana is legal in California, Oregon and Washington, it remains illegal under federal law. That’s why it’s best to keep the OG Kush and any other personal-use drugs at home. Coast Guard officers are required to confiscate any marijuana and issue a citation. The decision on whether to press charges is usually left up to the local district attorney.
Clyne said the Coast Guard’s San Pedro, Calif., office has a safe filled with confiscated marijuana, which people can recover by filing a claim with the government. “To this date, I don’t know anybody who has asked for their weed back,” he said.
Herd said if law enforcement finds even a small quantity of drugs on the boat, it opens the possibility of the vessel being seized by the government. “Just don’t allow drugs on the boat,” Herd said. “There’s no good upside.”
Weapons on Board
It’s not illegal to have a lawfully registered gun or a knife on a boat, but make sure the officers know. The boarding officers will usually ask before boarding, but it’s good to be proactive and let them know.
“We don’t care if you have guns or knives on your boat,” Clyne said. But, he added, “You don’t want the officers to find anything you should have told them about.”
What Makes Officers Nervous
Officers start to get nervous when they see people scurrying around a boat, especially if they duck into the cabin. If the Coast Guard crew sees someone throwing items into the water, their approach to the vessel won’t be a warm welcome.
“We want to see people’s hands, and they shouldn’t make any sudden movements,” Clyne said. “Just don’t act weird.”
Officers are leery of messy recreational boats that have lots of boxes and trash. While looking for contraband, they worry about getting stuck by a needle.
Giving false information and not providing an accurate count of the people on the boat is another red flag for law enforcement.
“Tell the truth,” Herd said. “If you’re lying, they assume you’ve got something to hide.”
What Makes Officers Happy
Owners who have their small children in life jackets and their boat documentation easily accessible can score big points with the Coast Guard. Have the local Coast Guard Auxiliary go over your boat each year, and keep the certificate they give you handy, so you can show a boarding officer. Officers are playing a numbers game and trying to make contact with as many boats as they can during their shift. Anything you can do to help them with the process is in your best interest.
“I always say ‘thank you, sir, and welcome aboard,’” said Herd, who is quick to provide the required information. “When that happens, they’ve always been very gracious and said, ‘I can tell that you’re squared away and I’m not even going to go below.’”
Good as Gold
After completing a boarding, the Coast Guard will give the captain a gold form, which shows the boat has been inspected. Anyone who gets stopped for a boarding within a few months of receiving the form should show it to the new Coast Guard crew. They generally will find another vessel to board.
“You’ll get the yellow slip whether everything is good or something was found in error,” Clyne said. “If you get pulled over two days later, then you can say, ‘Hey, they boarded me two days ago, and here’s my receipt.’”
Don’t be Embarrassed
It can be embarrassing to see a Coast Guard boat with flashing blue lights coming at you, especially with family and friends aboard. Just because the Coast Guard wants to pay a visit doesn’t mean you’re in trouble with the law. Get over the embarrassment, O’Connor said, and recognize that the Coast Guard has an important job. The Coast Guard is the only military service that has legal authority to enforce laws against U.S. citizens.
While David has encountered boardings on his trips to Bimini and the Florida Keys, he appreciates the difficult job the Coast Guard and local law enforcement have on the water.
“The Coast Guard is one of those agencies that you can get ticked off at, but when something is wrong at sea, you’re awfully glad to see the helicopter or the cutter heading toward you,” he said. “I’ve always tried to relate it that way. They can stop me, but if I ever need them because my life is in peril, they’re going to be on my side. I guess that’s the payment you make.”