Being Boarded

It was a few winters ago and Andy and I were travelling on Tula from Victoria BC to a whale conference near Port Townsend, Washington. Andy is a member of the Canadian Forces and as a navy guy, has many years of naval experience in all parts of the world and is at home on the ocean.

The trip down from Friday Harbour down San Juan Channel had been scenically interesting but as often is the case, the winds decided to remain on the nose at 15 knots. 

Tula surged through Cattle Pass in style under power at a record-breaking 12 knots helped by the rushing ebb tide. The cool mid-winter winds had us both looking forward to a hot shower at Port Haven Marina and a warming toddy or two.

About 5 NM from Port Townsend and well inside US waters, we spotted the large, red inflatable travelling at a very high speed towards us through the short, choppy seas. As normal we had been monitoring VHF Channel 16 but had never been hailed.

We had seen few other vessels on the trip down from Friday Harbour and it did not take a long to figure out that we were the intended target. Maybe the flashing blue light gave them away.

Escape at our 6.5 knots cruising speed would have been futile. We were clearly not going to be ticketed for excessive speed.

US Law on Boarding

Section 89 of Title 14 of the United States Code authorizes the Coast Guard to board vessels subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S., anytime upon the high seas and upon waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, to make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures and arrests.

During the boarding, the Coast Guard may also enforce U.S. criminal law. If there is evidence of drinking while boating, the officer will test your blood alcohol level and, if necessary, act in accordance with boating while intoxicated laws. If illegal substances are observed, the Coast Guard boarding team will enforce those laws as well.

There are a possible 130 violations that a master or it’s crew can be charged with. Those possible offences cover the full range of safety, smuggling, immigration, pollution, drugs and weapons offences. Form CG-4100 Boarding Report is issued and if the vessel is in full compliance, then the yellow copy of this form is given to the Master. 

If, during the course of the boarding, the officer finds your vessel is in violation of the safety rules, your voyage may be terminated. Having your voyage terminated probably means the local tow-truck service would be called up and you and your boat would be towed to the nearest Coast Guard station, in this case Port Townsend.

Tula students having fun
The Encounter

One of the six officers on board the USCG vessel asked if he could bring the RIB alongside our port-side. The vessel looked brand new, large and it was equipped with every piece of marine communications equipment and weaponry known to mortal man.

As the seas had calmed, we slowed to a gradual stop but learnt later that the preferred process is to keep your vessel moving at normal cruising speed. No lines were taken aboard Tula, the officers preferring to use the power of their 2 250 HP outboards to maintain their station on our port side.

Pre-boarding Interview

“Are you the skipper?”  Yes.
“Do you have any weapons or explosive devices on board?"  No.
“Would you have all hands muster in your vessel’s cockpit?”  Both Andy and I were already there. 
“What was your departure port and where are you going?”  Friday Harbour and Port Townsend.
“May we come aboard Sir?”  Throwing Tula’s throttle in the full ahead position and making our escape did not seem like a sensible option. Yes, please come aboard.

What to Expect

Four well-armed officers trooped aboard with two remaining in the cockpit to keep a close eye on Andy who had participated in many naval boarding parties in several parts of the world.

Being on the receiving end of a boarding was a novel experience for him. Two officers remained on the RIB to keep it on station and the two in our cockpit seemed there to take notes and instruct a student. I invited the two senior officers below out of the cool winter breeze.

Andy established a useful rapport with the two officers in the cockpit. When they learnt he was a navy guy, they seemed to relax a bit.

After telephoning into HQ somewhere on the planet, they quickly confirmed our legal clearance into the US. The rest of the interview seemed safety-related and very much a training exercise as the two form-fillers in the cockpit appeared new to the process. At all times, the USCG officers were very polite and conducted themselves professionally.

The interview proceeded in a friendly fashion with one of the officers down below checking lockers, flares, holding tank Y-valves etc. The other provided information from below to the form-fillers in the cockpit.

At the conclusion of the inspection the senior officer congratulated us on Tula’s good condition and noted wryly that they often board vessels which are in bad shape and, in a few cases, almost sinking. Tula’s Log Book now contains the yellow copy of Form CG-4100.

Security or Safety?

The officers seemed more interested in our legal presence in the US rather than whether Tula complied with the vessel safety requirements. As we travel close to the border on a regular basis, the security of the border is of paramount importance to the US and we often see Homeland Security planes, cutters and inflatables travelling along and monitoring the border.

Canada-US Shiprider Programme

In 2009, Canada and the US made permanent the Integrated Maritime Security Operation pilot programme known as “Shiprider”. Canadian boaters travelling near the border can expect to be intercepted and boarded at some point under this programme. The RCMP and the USCG each have an officer from the other country present on board their vessels.

Last summer, Tula was intercepted and boarded by the RCMP close to the border near the south end of Saturna Island under this programme, although there did not appear to be a US officer on board the RCMP vessel. The RCMP seemed to place less emphasis on security issues and more on safety aspects.

Tula now has a record on both the RCMP and the USCG databases and this should stand us in good stead should we encounter a boarding again. I asked if we could have some evidence of the inspection from the senior RCMP officer but it seems the RCMP policy is not to issue a report similar to the US Boarding Report.

Some Recommendations
  1. Keep your US Immigration Clearance Number and passports very handy. It helped that I had taken the considerable effort to obtain Nexus, BR, SVRS ID numbers and US boat decals. These numbers now seem to be cross-linked in some database somewhere in the US Cloud.
  2. We keep all our current vessel and personal documentation in an indexed three-ring binder. It very much smoothed the process by simply giving the lead officer our binder with our two Canadian passports tucked into the inside cover pocket. He then picked the data he needed from the binder.
  3. Ensure your safety, fire, PFD’s and other equipment is in good condition.
  4. Keep your cool and respond to all questions. A small amount of well-placed humour never goes astray.

Over the past couple of years, I have been very diligent about ensuring that all of our equipment and documentation on board Tula is in good shape.

We intend exploring the Pacific NW over the next two years and this event was a good learning exercise. We passed both inspections with flying colours.

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