Each year over 650 Americans die in
boating accidents, most of which are due to operator error. Moreover, boaters all
around the world are notoriously careless when it comes to having required safety
gear aboard. Marine police – both paid and volunteer – are on the water to make
it safer for you and your family, so when you are stopped don’t cop an attitude.
As you have seen on these pages, there are some pretty bad actors on the water.
You’re driving along on the highway and you see those familiar flashing lights in
your rear view mirror. Your heart sinks as you realize the sheriff is right on your
tail. Next thing you know the officer is shouting over his PA speaker instructing
you to pull over. Yup, you were snagged - for speeding.
Remember what the person who originally taught you how to drive told you about getting
pulled over? Keep your hands on the wheel, have the other occupants sit with their
hands in plain view and whatever you do, don’t be a wise guy. Be pleasant to the
officer, give him or her the documentation they request and if you’re lucky, because
you’re being so cooperative, they will be nice to you.
Heave to Means Stop!
Well, we’re now on the water, zipping along jumping wakes or going way too fast
in a no-wake zone. All of a sudden…you hear a siren, only to look over your shoulder
and see those familiar flashing lights (blue is the only color that signifies an
emergency vessel on the water). What do you do?
Well the officers, regardless if they’re local marine patrol, state police or Coast
Guard will ask you to heave to. This means: Stop your vessel! Politely ask if they
would prefer you to cut your engine(s) and/or drop anchor. Pull out some fenders
(even though most law enforcement vessels will have their own handy) so they can
safely tie-up alongside.
Now what? Well, if you took a safe boating course anytime in the last several years,
some of the information you learned about being stopped and boarded has completely
changed. In years gone by, the only agency that could stop your vessel and physically
board it without an actual written search warrant was the United States Coast Guard.
That has changed.
Several states have signed compacts with the Coast Guard in this post 9/11 environment,
whereas the Coast Guard has delegated some of their Federal powers to the state.
Specifically, they now allow state law enforcement (and those state powers flow
down to the local law enforcement officers) to board vessels without having written
So, the likelihood is that the Coast Guard officers or non-Coast Guard officers
are most likely going to board your vessel (check with your particular state). What
do you as the operator of the vessel who is responsible for the vessel and its passengers?
What you do is the same exact thing as if you were driving a vehicle; you keep your
hands where they can be seen. You assemble your crew and guests above decks so law
enforcement knows exactly many persons are on board and where everyone is. You provide
the documentation requested and be as polite. Keep in mind a vessel safety equipment
check will likely be performed. This will be the same vessel safety check the Coast
Guard Auxiliary provides for FREE, and without penalty. But this time, it may be
done by law enforcement officials with a penalty incurred should you not pass.
What Can Happen?
Should you fail the vessel safety equipment check, unlike the Auxiliary Vessel Safety
Check (VSC), where you were told you what you needed and asked that you immediately
correct the situation, law enforcement officials have several modalities they can
1. They can issue you a warning (if you’re lucky)
2. They can issue you a ticket (ok, not so lucky)
3. They can issue you a “termination of voyage” order, (really not so lucky) A termination
of voyage order means you will need to immediately return to your most recent place
of embarkation. Any and all violations will need to be cured before your voyage
Next on the hit parade are tickets and/or severe penalties for the offense that
caused you to be boarded in the first place (like speeding in a no-wake zone).
Wear a White Hat
So, what can you do to avoid getting boarded or receiving a ticket? Obey local laws,
follow the Rules of the Road, and get a Vessel Safety Check by the Coast Guard Auxiliary
(see http://www.safetyseal.net) or one of our partners in the VSC program. Be forewarned,
the Coast Guard and other law enforcement agencies do randomly hold safety check
stops. But, should Coast Guard or law enforcement visibly see your VSC (Vessel Safety
Check) sticker on your port side window, more than likely they will either do a
perfunctory check or simply let you continue on your voyage with nothing more than
a warning. Why? Because you have put in the effort and taken the time to pass the
VSC and more than likely have all of the required safety equipment onboard and in
working order. In addition to the obvious safety benefits, this is another great
reason to have a VSC completed this season!
So, let’s run through the rules if you get pulled over on the water once again:
1. Heave to (stop the vessel)
2. Have all passengers and crew topside
3. Be quiet, courteous, and cooperative
4. Provide all necessary documentation
5. Politely point out your VSC sticker Be safe on the water and wear your personal
flotation device (PFD).
For more information on boating safety, Vessel Safety Checks, or the Coast Guard
Auxiliary, visit www.cgaux.org or call 1-877-875-6296.
Florida Sport Fishing Magazine.