If you’ve ever seen the reflection of the blue-rotating hailing light in your windshield, you’ve felt the quickening in certain parts of your body: “Jeez, what did I do wrong?” The United States Coast Guard can and will board your vessel at their discretion. They need no search warrant, no provocation, no reason other than, “Good Morning, sir. My name is Officer Jones with the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is here today to ensure you are in compliance with all applicable federal laws and regulations.”

What Happens First?

First, you will be impressed by their youthfulness and their polite, professional demeanor. These are highly trained Federal officers. And the very first question they will ask you, before they even step off their vessel onto yours, is, “Without reaching for them or touching them, do you have any weapons on board?” Subtly but powerfully, the tone is set: “I am polite. I am professional. I mean business.” Let’s assume (and hope) that the answer to that question is “No” since I would need a lot more space than this column if the answer’s “Yes.”

What Happens Next?

The inspection that follows is driven largely by the size of the vessel, with a few standard exceptions. Your actual registration needs to be aboard and current. The “HIN” number, like your car’s “VIN” number, needs to be the same on your registration and on your boat (low on the starboard side of the transom.) If they don’t match, someone has a lot of explaining to do. The registration numbers must be of proper size (at least 3”), of contrasting color to your hull and be the most forward of any numbering or lettering on the boat. If you have an MSD (Marine Sanitation Device, aka a “head” or toilet), regardless of the size of your vessel, it must conform to regulations. Coastal waterways in the Northeast are “No Discharge Zones,” so if there is an overboard through-hull from the MSD holding tank, it must be in the locked/closed position and the key must under the control of the skipper. It can be seized closed or, lastly, the handle can be removed and it must be in the closed position.

The rest is largely going to be driven by the size of your vessel:

• Personal flotation devices (life jackets): at least one for everyone aboard, in good condition and readily available

• Fire extinguishers: boat size-dependent but all must be in working order

• Flares: boat-size dependent but all must “good to go” (i.e. unexpired!)

And so on and so forth…

What Happens Then?

Well, there are three possible outcomes. First and best, you will get a Report of Boarding and it’s marked, “No violations.” You’re good to go for the season. Secondly, your Report of Boarding could be marked “Written Warning” about some violation that has not risen to the level of “Notice of Violation.” One caveat: If the boarding officer returns to the station and finds that you’ve already been given a warning for the same issue, your notice becomes a Violation. That’s also the third outcome that could happen right at the boat – a “Notice of Violation” is issued.

There are two general outcomes from here. If the boarding officer believes that the nature of the violation is inherently unsafe, you will be directed to follow the Coast Guard back to the dock. They’re not going to allow you to keep fishing with some aspect of your boat that can lead to serious injury or death to you, your crew, or other boaters. Secondly, it can take on the aspect of a driving violation. The notice is mailed to the Coast Guard hearing office in Portsmouth, VA. There, the boarding report will be reviewed by a case officer and fines, further letters of violations, etc. will be issued. You will be notified by mail and you’ll have time (15 days) to file an appeal.

How to Avoid All This?

Well, the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary conducts free (your favorite price) vessel exams all season long – and they are not enforcement events. If your boat “fails” virtually the same inspection that would be conducted by the regulars, you get a report that details the deficiency – and the inspector’s cell phone number. He or she will tell you, “When you have this addressed, call me. I’ll come down and re-run the inspection.” Passing the inspection results in a USCGAux sticker of compliance being affixed to your windshield. Did I mention the price? Free. Visit safetyseal.net/GetVSC/ to learn more.

If you are interested in being part of the USCG Forces, email me at Vincent.Pica@cgauxnet.us or go direct to the D1SR Human Resources department, who are in charge of new members matters, at  d1south.org/StaffPages/DSO-HR.php and we will help you “get in this thing.”

Captain Kevin Reed is the Captain of the Port and Sector Commander for U.S. Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. CAPT Reed is responsible for all active-duty, reservist and auxiliary Coast Guard personnel within the Sector. As a Commodore of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary First District, Southern Region, Vin Pica works closely with CAPT Reed and his staff to promote boating safety in the waters between Connecticut, Long Island and 200 nautical miles offshore. Sector Long Island Sound Command Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 203-468-4401.