When the Law Hails - 08/20/2008
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.

Police boats come in many different shapes and sizes these days. Here are some tips for making a stop quick and painless.

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 warrants.


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 pursue.

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 can continue.

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.

Reprinted from Florida Sport Fishing Magazine.