How To Deal With The Coast Guard When Sailing

How To Deal With The Coast Guard When Sailing | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

As a new skipper, dealing with the Coast Guard can be a terrifying experience. On land, the police have a set of rules they have to follow to guarantee that they aren’t discriminating against or harassing civilians. On the water, it isn’t so cut and dry what these rules are.

When you’re out for a day of boating and bright blue lights flash behind you, what are you supposed to do? You are likely being hailed via your VHF radio or being given instructions via a bullhorn. Don’t panic! You are likely just the recipient of a random inspection.


Table of contents

Your First Coast Guard Stop

The Coast Guard has a set of blue lights and a siren behind you. What are you going to do? The first thing to understand is that the Coast Guard is not the police. They don’t really function at a similar level, which can be confusing for new skippers. The police require a reason to pull you over, and you can’t be subjected to random searches. However, this isn’t true for the Coast Guard.

Oftentimes, active boaters will be stopped by the Coast Guard once every year or so. As you continue sailing, you’re going to develop a relationship with the Coast Guard. After all, the safety regulations they enforce work in your favor more often than not, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

These stops are unlikely to end your boating. Most of the time, they are simply performing a random search and nothing is wrong. Even if you’re missing some life jackets or a fire extinguisher, the Coast Guard will typically escort you to the nearest place to fix the problem. After a quick stop at the marina store, you’ll be back on your way. If a violation is less serious, you may get off with a written agreement to correct the issue.

Regardless of what is wrong, you’re not likely to have a member of the Coast Guard give you an unwarranted ticket. It may seem trivial, but these rules exist for your safety. Be sure to listen to exactly what is wrong. No matter what violation they give, your name and information will end up in their records. It is best not to have the same violation a second time.

Stop in the Name of the Law

Many new skippers perform poorly at the most universal part of every stop -- the part where you stop. Pull out of any shipping lanes or expected traffic. Ask if they want you to simply drift or to drop an anchor. Put out some fenders to protect both boats. These are all small and obvious things when you think about it objectively, but it is easy to forget things if you are in a panic.

After stopping your boat, the first step is to simply show respect. Just like you would keep your hands in the open for a police officer, do the same for the Coast Guard. Responding with polite language and civility will go far in making sure that your experience is a pleasant one.

Bring all of your crew members topside to prevent the boarding party from receiving an unwelcome surprise. In all likeliness, the boarding party will consist of three members: one to watch their boat, one to stay with you, and a third to search your boat. At this point, the members of the search party will start inspecting the areas of your boat that are the largest safety concerns:

  • Paperwork: Your registration papers and stickers are the first item on the checklist. They need to be up to date and clearly displayed. Your registration and name should clearly match. If you are in a state where you are required to have a safety certificate to operate a boat, have it on hand as well.
  • Life Jackets: Have the correct number and type on board for your passengers and the type of water you’ll be boating in. Don’t forget that both size and age affect the requirements.
  • First Aid and Signaling Items: Everything should be up to date and ready to use. Flares can expire. Along with expired first aid equipment, this is a common violation.
  • Alarms: Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms should be located in all enclosed living spaces. This is really only a concern for yachts.
  • Garbage and Toilet: People are often surprised that these two areas get inspected. However, these spaces are some of the most likely to earn you a warning or a fine. Above the garbage, you should find the information on what can be disposed of and where. Cards of this information are available at nearly every maritime store. They also might double check to see if your toilet is routed overboard or to your holding tank, depending on whether you’re in an area where dumping of bathroom waste is prohibited.
  • Signaling Equipment: This can consist of both horns and lights, all of which should function correctly. It could also include specialized flags like the diver down flag for dive boats. Regardless, be prepared for them to check the functionality of any lights or sound signaling devices.
  • Engine Compartment: Coast Guard officials often want to check your engine compartment. Luckily, if you aren’t a motor sailor, you aren’t likely to have one. If you are a motor sailor, they will be inspecting bilges and looking for carbon monoxide placards. They might point out issues of hull integrity or flammability problems. These issues are weighty and may have your boat deemed unsafe to be in the water.
  • Escape Hatches: Depending on location and number of escape hatches, the Coast Guard may inspect them to see if they open correctly for the safety of you and your passengers.

Ask Questions

While you may not be allowed to follow the member of the boarding party who is inspecting your vessel, there is a Coast Guard member just to keep you company during a boarding. The members of the Coast Guard aren’t trying to ruin your life. They have a job they have to do and are usually incredibly polite. Many of them are happy to answer the questions of a curious boater.

Ask those questions! It’s important to know how you are expected to maintain safety on the water. Having access to the person who is trained to perform those inspections is like having a cheat sheet to your own safety. Don’t be too shy to ask questions and make the best use of this time.

Pulling in to Port

If you are a skipper who is following the rules, then you will be fine. You are unlikely to get a ticket if you have a personal flotation device for everyone on board. As long as your boat is safe to be on the water, you have nothing to fear.

At the end of the day, the Coast Guard is trying to keep you and your passengers safe on the water. They aren’t here to make your life hard or ruin your sailing fun. They are hard-working men and women of our armed forces who want to ensure that you aren’t a victim of the sea. They perform random searches so that you get to go home safely at the end of the day.

Treat these men and women with the same respect you would give to a police officer. Keep your hands visible, answer their questions clearly, and follow the directions they give you. At the end of the day, the worst thing that could happen is that you lose a few days of sailing. However, if they didn’t pull you over and inspect you, you and your boat could both end up at the bottom of the sea.

Don’t panic next time you see those flashing blue lights. Look at it instead as an opportunity to ensure that you are safe to be on the water!

How To Deal With The Coast Guard When Sailing
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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