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Navigating Chesapeake security zones

The Department of Defense is serious about enforcing security zones, and you should know the rules

The Department of Defense is serious about enforcing security zones, and you should know the rules

Read the other stories in this package: Navigating the Chesapeake

One of my rituals at the start of every boating season used to include a cruise to Annapolis to check out the Navy’s spring training vessel. A combat or support ship is anchored off the U.S. Naval Academy for a week or so, while boatloads of midshipmen are ferried over and put through their paces aboard a working vessel.

My favorite was the nuclear attack sub the Navy brought up in the early 1980s. These are beautifully sinister-looking creatures, grey-black and sleek, all business. My visit was ignored, even as I lazily sailed past the full length of the submarine, as close as 20 feet off its port hull.

But that was then. Today if I tried that, chances are my boat would be seized or sunk, and I’d be in jail or maybe even down with the boat.

After Al Qaeda suicide bombers in an open runabout nearly sank the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, followed a year later by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the homeland, the U.S. Department of Defense established strict security zones around all its ships and installations. What’s more, DOD is serious about enforcing them.

Since civilian boats and planes (not to mention cars and trucks) have been used as deadly weapons before, our military forces now have orders to shoot to kill if they have no other option to protect themselves or strategic facilities from a potential imminent attack by a civilian craft. As the Cole attack demonstrated all too well, even a very small boat can be deadly — and post-Sept. 11, the Navy and Coast Guard must treat all boaters as potential threats until proven otherwise.

No civilian Americans have died in a security zone violation, but there have been some very close calls (especially with private airplanes). On domestic waters, Coast Guard and Navy personnel are constantly on the lookout for boaters who put themselves at risk by blundering into a security zone and presenting a potential threat without even knowing it.

“It’s absolutely a concern, especially whenever you have very large military vessels moving through crowded recreational boating areas like we have down here,” says Lt. Cmdr. Rich Condit, spokesman for Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads, which includes Norfolk Naval Base, the largest Navy installation in the world. “We handle a tremendous number of escorts, and almost every escort there are [boaters] who are unaware they are in a security zone.”

Chesapeake Bay in particular has lots of places for boaters to bumble into a security zone, from the huge Aberdeen Proving Ground north of Baltimore to the massive Norfolk Naval Base. Add in a dozen or so other military facilities scattered throughout the Chesapeake, a few sensitive commercial sites patrolled by the Coast Guard (such as the largest liquefied natural gas shipping terminal in the nation), and you can easily find yourself sailing into troublesome waters. In the case of a Navy ship under way, the security zone literally is a moving target that may be coming at you.

If you’re a pleasure boater, ignoring or not recognizing a security situation, or being completely oblivious to the military presence on the Chesapeake, could put your life at risk. Here’s a rundown of what’s where on the Bay, and how to navigate the security zones.

Getting through“The Zone”

Following the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the federal government implemented 100- and 500-yard security zones around its ships:

• Pleasure boats must stay at least 100 yards away from all Navy and Coast Guard-escorted ships (whether anchored, docked, or under way) unless authorized to pass by an official patrol. Closer than 100 yards, security forces are authorized to use lethal force against a civilian vessel if deemed necessary to stop a possible attack. If you’re in tight situations with less than 100 yards of clearance, you must establish VHF radio contact (Channel 16) with the ship or its escort. Otherwise, you can expect, at the least, a fast and unfriendly visit by a heavily armed patrol boat.

• When passing within 500 yards of a Navy ship, skippers are to reduce speed to a minimum and follow any directions from the vessel or escort.

Violating the rule is punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and six years in jail — or worse, if you get really close and ignore official orders. Bear in mind that guards may have only seconds to decide whether to open fire. A powerboat approaching at 30 knot (on autopilot, for example, and the skipper isdown below) will cross the 500-yard security zone in about half a minute, and the 100-yard exclusion zone only seven seconds later.

The Coast Guard has “a whole different set of tools for engaging boats for going to them,” Condit says, which he would not discuss. But he notes that recreational skippers also have an obligation to help avoid security zone conflicts.

“They own a portion of that responsibility as well, to know where they are and to respond to directions. It’ll take two sides to keep everyone safe.”

Radio contact

The best way to stay out of trouble with a nearby Navy ship is to communicate early and clearly. That means monitoring and using your radio, especially since a military ship in the neighborhood may be trying to contact you. Always know generally where you are on the water, and where you are in relation to the ship. Identify where you’re heading and what you intend to do.

More than likely, the bridge officer will readily agree to your request and thank you for the call, since they now know you’re awake and what your intentions are. If not, they’ll let you know (in which case you are responsible for changing course).

Once you have announced your plan, be sure to stick to it. Any sudden, unannounced turn toward the ship will be seen — and treated — as a threat.

Don’t be surprised when Navy ships on maneuvers clear private vessels from their operational area. They will always identify themselves on the radio as “warship” or “naval ship” (not by name), and will give you specific instructions what to do. Listen to your VHF and be prepared to respond if one is nearby.

And in the case of warships under way in a narrow channel (notably entering or leaving the Norfolk Naval Base or in Thimble Shoals Channel, the southern opening in the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel), escort vessels will order all maritime traffic to get out of the way with a radio command to “Clear the navigable channel!” This is an order — not a request — but the response is easy: Simply maneuver your boat outside the lateral buoys (still in deep water) and let them pass, with a courtesy call to the escort vessel.

Close calls

There have been numerous reports of tense military-civilian encounters in crowded harbors, notably (in the Chesapeake) where the Intracoastal Waterway passes the Norfolk Naval Base — which has led to some serious warnings to recreational boats that trespassed into a warship’s security zone.

By far the closest call with a security zone violation involved a small Cessna flying from Pennsylvania to North Carolina last May. The two pilots did not have proper charts, got lost on their way south, were not using their radio, and stumbled into heavily restricted airspace over downtown Washington. Their ignorance caused thousands of people to be frantically evacuated from the Capitol and the White House, and Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 fighters were scrambled to intercept the plane. Officials later said the men were seconds away from being blown out of the sky when they finally responded to the jets’ warning flares and turned back. They were arrested immediately upon landing.

On the water the Pentagon is gradually acquiring “non-lethal” weapons to lessen the risk of accidental death. One such device came to light in November 2005, when the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit was attacked by pirates off Somalia; news reports revealed that the crew’s use of a “sonic cannon” proved instrumental in thwarting the attack. Technically known as an LRAD (long-range acoustic device), it is a dish that blasts a tight beam of painful, debilitating, siren-like sound over long distances.

Read your charts

Security zones around military installations and facilities existed long before the war on terrorism, and they are clearly shown on nautical charts but were often loosely enforced. Various security measures taken after the Cole and Sept. 11 attacks not only added teeth to those exclusion areas, but also created new security zones around important non-military facilities, such as bridges, airports, power plants and other energy facilities, locks and dams, and certain docks. This is why it’s a no-no to anchor near a bridge, even just to fish.

In the Chesapeake, two such highly sensitive facilities with 500-yard security zones are the Cove Point liquefied natural gas ship terminal and the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, both just north of Solomons Island, Md. The Calvert Cliffs security zone closed off some prime fishing grounds below the nuclear plant’s heat discharge pipes, much to the dismay of local anglers.

How do you find out where the security zones are in your waters?

The best way, now and in the future, is to read your (up-to-date) charts carefully, looking in particular for magenta lines and circles that indicate restricted or prohibited waters. While the Coast Guard is currently working to consolidate its maze of Web sites into a one-stop “Coast Guard Homeport,” the system is not yet operational, and officials say the new system will not provide local security zone information online in a graphical format.

So be sure to read your charts. Pay attention to where you are and what’s around you. Listen to and use your VHF radio. And remember that if you’re in the wrong place on the water at the wrong time — and clueless about what to do — the Navy and Coast Guard will not want to be your friend.

Steve Blakely is an editor in Washington, D.C.