Prevention, Not Punishment: Traffic Stops at Sea

What to do when the Coast Guard stops you

By Petty Officer 2nd Class John Miller
No one likes to see flashing blue lights approaching him in a car rear-view mirror. Safe to say, the same applies to seeing them headed toward you on the water, mounted on the top of a Coast Guard small boat.

More than just interrupting a day of fishing, the approach of a representative from the so-called “Smokies of the Sea” can be disconcerting because of the cause of the stop-or apparent lack thereof. After all, aside from no wake zones, there aren’t many speed traps on the waterways.

“Point blank, for us, boardings are for and about safety,” says Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Charlie Gordon, who has conducted recreational vessel boardings for twelve years from Key West to the Great Lakes. “Most of the time when we board boats, it’s not to bust fisherman, but to educate them.”

Coast Guard Photo

CHESAPEAKE BAY, Va. – Petty Officer 2nd Class Erika Krol of Mount Clemens, Mich., is treated to a fish story by a young angler aboard a pleasure craft Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007, near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Krol, a crewman aboard the 87-foot Coast Guard Cutter Cochito, based in Norfolk, Va., was part of a five-person crew conducting boardings of recreational vessels like this one to ensure they met federal and state safety requirements, including making sure all passengers less than thirteen years of age are wearing personal flotation devices. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John D. Miller.

Though they may seem like a traffic stop, Gordon says Coast Guard boardings are a bit different in that a state trooper won’t inspect your vehicle’s safety gear or spare tire. That’s because if you break down on the side of the road, chances are that help is a couple of minutes away. But let’s face it: being on the water involves an inherent risk in a rapidly changing and unforgiving environment. And if law enforcement agencies like the Coast Guard can do as much as possible

to mitigate danger in advance by checking vessels to make sure they are seaworthy and have the appropriate safety equipment, the less likely you may be to meet them again-in more dire situations. Keeping this in mind can make a Coast Guard boarding much less stressful. Though local and state law enforcement officers-like their land-based counterparts-may board your vessel for probable cause or to check licenses (including fishing or operator permits in some states, or captain’s licenses if carrying paying passengers) as well as your vessel’s registration or documentation, Coast Guard boarding team members are interested in three things aside from verifying you and your boat’s papers: the condition of the vessel, its safety equipment and whether it poses a threat to the environment.

Gordon says seaworthiness is being evaluated even before a law enforcement officer steps foot on your boat: “As we approach a vessel, we’re looking for obvious things: whether it’s riding awkwardly in the water or if there’s something odd looking about the hull.”

That visual inspection continues after a boarding officer or team members step over your gunwales. Officers look for hazards that may harm not only them, but also the operator and his or her passengers. Exposed wires obviously aren’t allowed, for instance, and engines other than outboards must have the appropriate flame control devices and ventilation. In worst case situations when the infraction cannot be fixed on site and poses a threat to safety, the Coast Guard can actually “terminate” a vessel.

“We can turn people around and tell them they need to go back to the pier and get whatever is wrong, fixed,” explains Gordon of the ominous-sounding punishment. Less severe infractions can draw warnings or citations. In the case of the latter, a letter is sent to the boater from a Coast Guard hearing officer, and depending upon the past safety record of the operator, the latter may have a chance to prove that he or she remedied the problem or otherwise face a fine. In contrast, at the state and local levels, a summons can be issued and arrests can be made in extreme cases (see sidebar).

Gordon says that in his experience, most warnings and citations result from boaters not having the required safety equipment required by the Coast Guard or it not being in serviceable condition. The most frequent problem? Failing to have a throwable personal flotation device (PFD) or having expired flares or fire extinguishers.

“Regularly check the expiration date of your safety equipment, even before you buy it,” says Petty Officer 2nd Class Erika Krol, Gordon’s shipmate aboard the Norfolk, Va.-based Coast Guard Cutter Cochito, alluding to the fact that many marine supply stores may place their older stock at the front of displays.

Though specific requirements vary depending upon vessel size (see sidebar), the other basic safety equipment required by federal regulations includes having the appropriate kind and number of PFDs, sound producing devices, and at night or in cases of restricted visibility, navigation lights.

The final thing boarding team members are looking for is whether your vessel poses a threat to the environment.

Coast Guard Vessel Inspection

CHESAPEAKE BAY, Va. – Petty Officer 1st Class Charlie Gordon enters a vessel’s information into a PDA during a boarding. During boardings, Coast Guard personnel inspect the registration, seaworthiness and required safety equipment of each vessel and then enter that data into a national database. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John D. Miller.

Obviously, discharging oil, fuel and raw sewage into the water is illegal. To reduce the likelihood of that happening, on boats larger than 26 feet, garbage placards must be posted conspicuously; likewise, on vessels bigger than 40 feet, oil pollution placards must also be posted in the machinery spaces. As they check for all these items, the Coast Guard is entering the boat’s information into a database, together with whether any problems were discovered. Once the inspection is completed, a boarding team member will give a copy of the boarding report to the vessel owner. Hold on to it, says Gordon, especially if there weren’t any discrepancies, because it lets the Coast Guard know you’ve been boarded recently without problems, potentially saving you from another visit in the near future.

Like it or not, the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction allows them to board boats at their discretion. And Gordon says most members of boarding teams recognize it’s a less than pleasant experience for fishermen. Beyond gun-carrying uniformed personnel coming aboard, producing documents and equipment upon demand can be flustering, says Gordon. He adds that boaters can reduce this anxiety by organizing their gear ahead of time. And, if they don’t have it, to admit that upfront.

“Just be honest, and know where your equipment is, so it’s easy for you to find what you need,” he says. “We’re not trying to be big, bad guys. That’s not our job. The most important thing for people to know is how and why they need to use their safety equipment.”


Who’s in Charge Where?

As elsewhere in the land, the principles of federalism also come into play at sea. In this case, it means that the Coast Guard can board your vessel in state and federal waters. When they do, says Petty Officer Charles Gordon, it is usually to do a vessel safety check. However, in a post-9/11 world, the Coast Guard is also charged with homeland security missions and enforces measures such as security zones. And whereas a safety violation will earn you a letter from a hearing officer, violating security zones can lead to you arriving back at the dock prematurely in handcuffs.

Some local and state law enforcement organizations have entered into agreements that enable them to enforce similar security measures. However, the jurisdiction of these entities, which may include the police or natural resource agencies, is otherwise very clearly defined, usually limited to the waters and laws of their state (or city or town). Additionally, any boardings these personnel may do must be for probable cause, says Lt. Col. Warner Rhodes of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which can be something as simple as fishing. In other words, while these authorities may check for safety issues, they are likely checking for something else: criminal activity, whether your licenses are up to date or whether your fish falls within size and catch limits.

“I didn’t know I needed that.”

Ignorance is not only not an excuse, it’s dangerous. Knowing and having the required equipment for your vessel may save your life one day in addition to saving you from trouble with the Coast Guard. However, the regulations determining safety equipment vary depending on the size and nature of your boat, which admittedly can be confusing, says Coast Guard Petty Officer Charlie Gordon.

Gordon and his team have the benefit of experience, but before leaving the dock, he recommends recreational boaters check federal regulations as well as state laws if they differ. To make life easier, the Coast Guard has posted this information on the internet at Also on the website is a link to the Coast Guard Auxiliary’s and United States Power Squadron’s Vessel Safety Checks. A free service provided at locations around the country, a Vessel Safety Check can identify safety or mechanical problems before you head out on the water-and into trouble.

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