One of the main things that I believe that we all, as sailors, are grateful for are the services of the United States Coast Guard. The Guard, a branch of our uniformed military services, has a multifaceted role ranging from coastal defense, interdiction with regards to drug trafficking over water, search and rescue, other safety related functions including provision of emergency supplies, advice, and education, and more. I, for one, find it to be very reassuring to see the Coast Guard helicopters flying overhead when I’m sailing, their vessels on the water in the bay, moored in Sausalito, or out in the ocean. Spend the day tuned into channel 16 on your VHF radio and you will hear that the Coast Guard is ever present and ready to assist those on the water or at the coast when necessary.
In mid December 2019, my friend Paul and I, along with two others, were headed out the gate. We were probably a half mile past the bridge on our way to the mighty Pacific Ocean when I decided to turn around to check for traffic behind that might be steaming faster than we were motoring. About 100 m behind, and to our port side, a US Coast Guard vessel, very similar to the one depicted in the photograph below, not flying across the surface of the water but instead matching our speed of about 6 kn, seemed to be tagging us. I recall they had a flashing light of some type.
I wasn’t clear of their intention but I recognized that they may be planning to board the vessel for inspection. They didn’t seem in too much of a hurry as they made forward progress in formation with us for a short while. I suspected they may be looking up the vessel information and registration based on the AIS information that we were broadcasting. I decided to maintain our speed and course and to wait and see what happens.
One should not have anything to fear in this situation unless they are knowingly breaking various and sundry laws or that their vessel is not likely going to meet USCG safety requirements. Still, I felt almost as if I were driving down the highway just over the speed limit and a highway patrolman was behind just waiting for me to make some sort of mistake.
They finally made their intentions clear by increasing speed to catch up to our progress. We were going to be boarded. I was at the helm and was requested to decrease our speed to 5 kn and to continue to maintain our course. The USCG vessel came alongside us and indicated that they were going to put their boat up against mine. That didn’t seem like it would be a problem because their vessel was, basically, one of those inflatable rubber craft that shouldn’t cause any damage in a best case scenario.
One of the guardsmen on their vessel asked to speak to our skipper. That would have been yours truly so I identified myself. He then asked if there were any firearms or other weapons on board. I glanced at his sidearm and wanted to say “not yet” but thought better of it. He might not have been in the mood for good humor on the water! I indicated there were no such items on board and he asked permission to board along with one of his mates. Paul indicated that he thought it was exciting that we were being boarded. Honestly, I felt the same way. It’s part of one’s education to experience these sorts of things on the water. At any rate, one of the two guardsmen stated something to the effect that it was not the usual response people have upon being boarded by the Coast Guard.
Once we were boarded, the Coast Guard vessel dropped back about 25 m and motored along with us as we continued our progress out the gate.
I turned the helm over my friend Robert and went into the cabin with the guardsman who seemed to be in charge. He asked to see the registration papers. He indicated that he noted we were all wearing our personal flotation devices. He wanted to examine the fire extinguishers, to see the flares, the EPIRB, etc. He wanted to see that the waste discharge valve was zip tied closed so that there wouldn’t be an accidental discharge close to shore and in violation of Coast Guard rules and regulations. Basically, his purpose was to ensure that we met all US Coast Guard requirements regarding matters pertaining to safety.
My only deficiencies were that I couldn’t remember where the boat registration number was permanently affixed to the vessel. Further, I knew I had seen them and I couldn’t remember where the placards pertaining to discharge of trash and human waste were located. He simply told me to locate them and be prepared to show them in the event that I am boarded in the future. Of course, I found them about an hour or two later. You can be sure that I’ll be prepared for the next boarding.
As soon as their paperwork was complete, the guardsmen radioed their vessel and soon disembarked Skiron stepping back onto their own. We then proceeded to open water and frolicked in the ocean for the afternoon.
I recommend, whether you own your vessel or are chartering, be mindful of the fact that you are subject to be boarded by the US Coast Guard. Understand the regulations pertaining to safety. Be ready to demonstrate that you meet the USCG requirements. Are your fire extinguishers charged? Do you have the appropriate numbers and types of extinguishers based on the size of your vessel? Are your flares outdated? Do you know where those placards regarding disposal rules are located? Do you have the ones required for the size of your vessel? Do your homework and be prepared.
Here is a USCG link that provides further information as to what to expect in the event that you are boarded.