If you are a boater in the United States, there is a good chance that you either have been boarded or will be boarded by a Coast Guard vessel at some point.
As part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Coast Guard has the unique task of enforcing US maritime laws and interacting with both American and foreign boaters. Coast Guardsmen perform boardings of both recreational and commercial vessels.
As a skipper, there are a few things you may wish to know about Coast Guard boardings:
Why does the Coast Guard want to board your vessel?
The main reason for boardings is to promote safety at sea. Guardsmen would rather educate and ensure boaters have appropriate equipment on board than have to be called out to perform a search and rescue operation.
How do you prepare for a boarding?
Quite simply, have all your paperwork, safety equipment, and required placards in place. If you are found to be missing a required element, then you’ll typically be given an opportunity to fix the violation or be issued a citation.
Is a Coast Guard boarding the same as being pulled over by the police?
The Coast Guard regularly boards vessels for inspections. This does not mean you have done anything wrong. Coast Guard vessels are often seen cruising busy areas and conducting routine boardings on holidays.
When the Coast Guard vessel approaches, they may ask you, the skipper, for permission to board. Unlike the police, the Coast Guard does not need your permission, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause in order to conduct a stop. When Guardsmen ask “permission” to board, they are just being polite.
How does the Coast Guard initiate a boarding?
The Coast Guard can approach your boat in a number of ways. They may hail you via marine radio, use their lights and approach your vessel, or use a loud speaker signifying their intentions.
Find a safe location to heave to. Determine what side they’d like to tie alongside, place fenders on the appropriate side, and then cut your power if needed.
What happens now that they are aboard?
Boarding parties consist of an average of 3 or more people, depending on the size of your boat. One or more Guardsmen will stay aboard the Coast Guard vessel.
There are some standard procedures here which should take approximately 15-30 minutes. One member of the boarding party will usually stay with you and start asking you a series of questions while the others will inspect your boat.
Before beginning the inspection, you will usually be asked if you have weapons on board. Simply respond with a “yes” or “no” and indicate where any weapons are located. Produce the appropriate weapons permit if required by your state.
This preliminary question is asked for purposes of both the Guardsmen’s safety and your safety. Imagine you reaching in a glove box to present them with registration information only to have to move your hand gun out of the way to get to it. Disclosing the locations of all weapons right away ensures everyone’s safety.
During the inspection, what are they looking for?
If you’d like to know what the Guardsmen are looking for, review the Coast Guard Minimum Safety Equipment List.
Coast Guard boarding teams physically inspect the following required safety equipment:
- Registration, sticker, documentation
- Life jackets (ensuring there is an appropriate-sized one in working condition for each person aboard)
- Visual distress signals, such as flares, and their expiration dates
- Sound-producing devices, such as whistles or air horns
- Fire extinguishers, when required
- Any other safety equipment required by law
Can you ask questions?
The Coast Guard usually has no problem with you asking questions as long as you remain professional.
What happens if a violation is found?
If a violation is found during a safety inspection, the Coast Guard will take action based on the severity of the violation. For serious infractions, this may mean flagging your vessel as unsafe. In that case you will have to immediately return to shore until the problem is corrected.
If a smaller violation is found, you may be given a verbal or written warning or simply be educated on the spot. Guardsmen may recommend items or actions that you can take to make your vessel safer.
Now that I have learned about Coast Guard boardings, what are my next steps?
- Ensure you have all Minimum Required Safety Equipment along with your current registration and/or documentation and other paperwork.
- Get a Vessel Safety Check (VSF). Vessels with a current VSF sticker usually have their boarding time cut down significantly. Request a check online through Safety Seal or the Coast Guard Auxiliary. You may also set up an inspection by contacting a Coast Guard Auxiliary member at your local marina.
Having the paperwork and equipment listed above will make any future boarding a smooth and painless endeavor so you can get back to boating in no time.