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Yacht boardings range from normal to nerve-racking

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Every captain at this month’s Triton Bridge luncheon has worked on a boat that has been boarded by law enforcement during his/her career. Often inconvenient and occasionally nerve-racking, the captains accept these visits as part of their job on the water. And they were quick to share adventures.


“When we were boarded in the Bahamas, they asked for our guns,” one captain said. “They all had different uniforms, I wasn’t sure who was in charge, and they took the guns into their control.


“I was nervous,” this captain said. “But our papers were cool, and they eventually gave back the guns.”


As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank discussion. The attending captains are identified in the photograph.


The group discussed boardings by coast guard, military and other law enforcement officers in the United States, Bahamas, Caribbean and Europe.


Many of the boardings were routine and followed standard protocol. One captain described how a typical U.S. Coast Guard boarding starts with a call on radio.


“You know they are talking to you, they call in with the lat/long,” this captain said. “This is commander so-and-so, where are you headed, where have you been? They ask how many onboard, are all U.S. citizens, who is master of the vessel. And they say they will come alongside.”


If you are under way they tell you to reduce speed and maintain course, the captain said.
“They’ll have you reel in lines with bait on,” another captain said.


When the inspection is initiated from a cutter, the boarding officers are deployed in a smaller boat. Then several officers from that boat jump on board, the first captain said.


“They leave one guy on the boat, on the gun,” the captain said of the officer on the .50-caliber machine gun on the bow. “They want to present an overwhelming force.”


One of the captains said yachts can offer fenders and help from the crew, but officers usually handle it without assistance.


“Sometimes they request you gather all the crew,” another captain said. “Mainly, they don’t want any surprises. That’s why you explain what you are doing, like, ‘my mate is going to get the flares’.”


They ask about weapons and then walk around the vessel, assessing if things look in order, the captains said.


Then they ask about safety gear, navigation information and pollution prevention. They want to see ships papers, pfds, lights, flares, horns, fire extinguishers, up-to-date navigational charts and garbage plans.


If all inspection requirements are met, boardings can last a few minutes. But if paperwork is missing or equipment isn’t up to par, it can take several hours. The captains agreed that boardings can be mitigated by preparation.


“They are measured by the number of boats they see,” a captain said.


“If you make it easier for them to go and see more, you help them,” another said. “You help them make up time, get through more cumbersome boats, or have free time.”


“The easier you make it for them,” said a third, “the easier it will be.”


Several captains put paperwork for the captain, crew, ship, safety equipment and navigation in an accessible place.


“We always go above and beyond with the paperwork,” a captain said. “We are always prepared with the notebook. They’re looking to see if you are Joe-six-pack versus a professional.”


“All of it is about being ready,” another captain said. “If you look sketchy and unorganized, that’s a problem.”


All boats are required to comply when hailed for an inspection, no matter how difficult. One captain said the yacht was under way between Panama and St. Thomas, USVI, when it was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard from Puerto Rico.  


“They were looking for drugs and immigrants,” the captain said, “but we were in six- to eight-foot seas and we were very tired.”


This captain said the officers went through the boat, wiped surfaces and sent the samples back to the cutter for analysis. All the while, the captain was told to keep the boat running steady in the current and waves.


“They said they found traces of cocaine in the toilet,” this captain said. “They finally came back and said it was such small amounts, they let us go.”


Another inconvenient boarding required a sailboat to stop.


“They had us haul down sails and made us stand so they could see all our hands over the boom,” a captain said.


As the officers searched the sailboat, the captain offered assistance.


“We said they could look in our bags,” this captain said, “but they said, ‘we can’t look in bags’. They were looking for illegals and only looked in man-sized spaces.”


The second search in as many days brought up the topic of how the coast guard and other law enforcement agencies handle their internal communication and record-keeping.


“In the U.S., you are always issued some kind of piece of paper,” this captain continued. “But that’s not necessarily true in the rest of the world.”


“Customs asks lots of questions, sometimes with questions that proved they had my file called up,” another captain said. “USCG is now part of Homeland Security. There is no doubt they have a file on us.”


But another captain said he wasn’t sure how well the difference branches communicated.


“I always do the local boater option,” the captain said of an attempt to make boardings in the United States more efficient by pre-reporting his arrival information online. “But they can never find the information.”


The captains agreed that officers who came aboard, regardless of where they were in the world, were always professional, but several in the group said they have been boarded by inexperienced officers.


“I’ve been boarded three times, once in Ft. Lauderdale,” a captain said. “I actually told them what they needed to look for.”


“I had one boarding that seemed uncalled for,” another captain said. “They wanted to do an inspection, but they were green thumbs. I think it was a training group.”


One captain’s trip was delayed while delivering a “go-fast” and believed the boat was profiled for criminal activity.


“They were young guys, being trained,” the captain said. “But they still were professional and doing a good job.”


“I had the tide issue to be able to get in and had lost an engine,” the captain said. “I requested they follow me through, but they said no.”


The captain missed the tide required to navigate to the destination and had to hold the boat in a small channel in the current, while officers did paperwork.


Several captains said although being boarded is a disruption, the USCG, for example, is doing a service on the waters and is primarily trying to help boats comply with laws. Several had examples of how the officers tried to avoid citing the captain for violations.


“They really are there to help,” one captain said. “They say, ‘I’ll be doing this while you see if you can find that bell’.”


One captain was given an opportunity to hand-write his missing garbage plan.


“They let us search our own boat,” said one captain who was boarded during a new yacht delivery. “We didn’t know where the flares were because with new boats, they’ll hide them in the oven or something.”


One captain was boarded by the USCG and officers looked for about 10 items off a checklist, including the trash plan.


“I felt like they knew I didn’t have a trash plan,” this captain said. “I thought the placard was sufficient, but no.


But they give you a citation with over a year to comply. It’s a boarding report.”


“They are especially looking for a few things, like oil,” another captain said.


“On the other hand, the local enforcement is looking to write tickets,” a third captain said.


“But the USCG is not so much in it to get money,” a fourth captain said. “I know the Department of Natural Resources is watching, they are keeping track for taxes.”


On this topic, no one in the group had paid a ticket or fine due to a boarding. A captain said he keeps any boarding paperwork onboard for any subsequent boardings, so officers do not have to repeat the check.


Overall, the captains agreed that boardings are just part of the job, especially since most had experienced several during their careers. But megayachts may still be novel for many law enforcement officers.


“I’ve had them bang on the boat at 8:30 in the morning in the marina,” another captain said. “I’m a foreign flag and they run [over] when they see a foreign flag.”


“I think a lot of it is, they don’t know what we are,” this captain said of larger boats.


“They understand yachts in coastal Florida,” another captain said. “But not so much north up the coast.”


One captain said they were boarded by the Dominican Republic Navy just because of the large yacht.


“It felt like they wanted to see the boat,” this captain said. “They looked all around, so we just offered them a Coke.”

Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.


To read more on U.S. boarding rules click “U.S. waters require local compliance“.

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