Tatts and boots: Random boardings are bad for boating because boating really is about freedom

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Took a little cruise last week to get the old boat in shape. Nothing compromises a vessel more than disuse, so we headed north from Jacksonville, Fla., knowing full well we would have to deal with our fair share of shakedown hassles.

First, Tropical Storm Andrea forced us to hole up for a couple days in Fernandina. My crew’s 8-year-old vomited colorfully on the cockpit cushions. The steering hydraulics failed off Georgia and we were accused of dragging anchor in Charleston, S.C. (more about that later).

But the lowest moment happened as we were leaving Charleston, southbound on the Intracoastal Waterway. We had just turned off the Ashley River, heading up Wapoo Creek toward the bascule bridge.

Funny thing: The issue of police boardings was already on my mind. Fellow blogger Norm Schultz recently did an excellent job for TradeOnlyToday.com (the website of Soundings sister magazine Trade Only) when he questioned whether random boardings were unconstitutional. He wrote about how the Arkansas Supreme Court recently ruled that random boardings violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Schultz, citing the Arkansas case and legislation in Ohio and Michigan, wondered why the same rationale should not apply to the Coast Guard. “At the very least, isn’t it clearly time for a thorough review of any such policies as we begin another summer of boating?” Schultz asked.

Our boarding occurred at the same time that a national debate had begun because of a fugitive whistleblower’s revelation that the U.S. government had engaged in a massive electronic surveillance of its own citizenry.

SNEAKING UP

As we putted up the creek, Joanne sounded the alarm. “What are they doing so close to us,” she asked. “They” were the group of uniformed people on a Charleston police boat that was creeping up behind us.

I turned around and looked at them crawling toward our stern. I kept up the stare. They keep creeping, finally coming alongside.

“Good morning, sir. Do you remember the last time you were boarded by the Coast Guard, when it was?” asked the lady Coast Guardsman, cloyingly polite.

“No, I do not,” I said. I did not want to be boarded, and there would be no levity in my voice. I would be curt and answer directly. I was not happy.

“Do you mind if we come on board for a safety inspection?” she asked.

I’m sorry that some law enforcement apologists will respond negatively to this blog, but I personally think anyone who doesn’t mind being boarded is an idiot.

“Sure, come on board,” I said. She told me to maintain way. The current was carrying us toward the unopened bridge, and I mentioned that.

“I am aware of that, sir,” she said.

THEM VS. US

On Rio, a 1977 Morgan Out Island 41, there were seven souls: myself and Joanne, two older adult males (a retired British civil servant and a chef), the aforementioned 8-year-old boy, a 40-pound cocker spaniel and a 10-pound Maltese.

On Charleston Police: A Charleston police officer, two Coast Guard ladies, two Customs and Border Protection officers, a South Carolina state policeman and a guy in civvies who may or may not have been in charge of the German shepherd.

So Coast Guard Lady No. 1 comes on board, followed by CBP Officer No. 1. The rest of the smorgasbord shadowed us as we did slow rotations in the creek. In the end, Rio was found in compliance with safety regs once CG Lady 1 dug deep enough in my flare box to find the ones that had not expired.

I was issued the “goldenrod” colored copy of the boarding report, which I could present to any subsequent would-be boarders over the next year — meant to be some consolation.

All’s well that ends well, right?

No.

TATTOOS & COMBAT BOOTS

  • We were boarded for no reason. We were not operating erratically. There was no outward evidence that anything was illegal or amiss.
  • We were boarded by a woman wearing tactical police gear — sidearm, mace, Taser, handcuffs, etc. Worst of all, she came on my boat with her CBP colleague wearing combat boots. That just bothers me. Given that we were on a 35-year-old, well-worn production sailboat, I didn’t have the courage or pretentiousness to ask that they take off their footwear, but let me give you some perspective. When officials in the Dominican Republic or Cuba have come to the boat to clear us into those countries, they invariably offer to take their shoes off.

The reason combat boots bother me is this: At any moment, this everything-bagel of law enforcement might find itself as first-responders to a non-criminal emergency call. Black boots laced, not one of them would be ready to jump in the water to save some kid gone under as a result of a PWC accident.

  • Maybe I’m just old, but aside from being condescendingly polite as she poked through the corners of my boat, CG Lady 1 had arms covered with not so lovely tattoos. Though indecipherable in their totality, one tattoo said “Freedom” in script.
  • With absolutely no reason to think that anyone aboard had committed a crime, we were all asked to present our passports or driver’s licenses, and our information was compared to the police database. This is nothing but a gratuitous invasion of privacy.

I am so glad, however, that they did not insist on boarding the German shepherd to sniff for whatever. It would have ended badly. The officers would have been forced to shoot our Maltese and cocker spaniel to prevent their hapless shepherd from being mauled.

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WHY WE BOAT

I don’t know about you, but I did not get into boating to belong to a yacht club. I didn’t do it to become expert on pumps and wiring and other mechanical systems, though that has been an unintended side effect. I got into boating because a good sail is exhilarating, because I associate being on the water with freedom and because many of the very best places in the world can be reached by water.

The opposite of freedom is having armed officers of the state coming on my boat for no reason. To me, this incident raises serious larger issues. This trend in on-the-water law enforcement became even more distorted after 9/11, and, like Norm Schultz, I think it’s time to reappraise the direction. I agree with Ben Franklin, who once said: “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”

Now, I promised to tell the story about a squall that swept through the anchorage at Charleston. A boat that had been well upwind of Rio suddenly appeared a few feet from our bow. The rain was coming down in sheets, and their searchlight was directed at us.

Barry, my longtime delivery partner and a former British law enforcement officer, went forward and pointed out the obvious. “You’re dragging,” he shouted above the din. The response was a torrent of obscenities in a German accent reminiscent of Gen. Burkhalter on “Hogan’s Heroes.”

He then accused us of dragging, even though his transom was nearly touching our bow. “I vas here first,” he insisted.

True, that is an anchoring rule, but it does not apply once one’s anchor begins to drag.

I got on the VHF (low-power, for you radio enforcers) and pointed out to our foreign visitor — Barry was now calling him “Fritz” — that us “dragging forward” violated the laws of logic and physics. By then, the squall was subsiding, and Burkhalter/Fritz seemed to have hauled in some chain, pulling his boat away from us.

The next morning we took a look at our nemesis. No name on the boat, no flag of origin, no courtesy flag.

I was boarded twice before in my boating history: when I happened to be sailing into Boston Harbor the same night a drug-smuggling mother ship had been detected offshore, and when I happened to unintentionally sail well inside an aircraft carrier’s security zone 100 miles off New York. These boardings were entirely understandable, given the circumstances. Not so in Charleston. Bad for American freedom, bad for boating.

But if the Charleston Tactical Team needed to board someone without cause, I would rather they had put their boots on Fritz’s decks, not ours.

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