A random inspection

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 8:15am

“Hello, sir. When was the last time you were boarded by the United States Coast Guard, sir?” asked the crewman aboard the 30-foot Defender Class vessel. “I was boarded in Point Judith about 30 years ago for a random inspection, sir,” I replied. “Thank you, sir. We’d like to come aboard to inspect your vessel. Do you have any weapons aboard your vessel, sir?” asked the crewman. “Negative,” I said, “Hold your course and I’ll sail along your starboard side so you can come aboard.” Two weeks ago I was sailing north toward the center span of the Pell Bridge when I noticed the Coast Guard boat with a crew of five passing my stern. I thought nothing of it until I noticed a blinking blue light. The Defender 30 came alongside my port stern quarter, and so began the aforementioned conversation with the Boatswain’s mate.

I sailed Reverie to the starboard side of the vessel as planned, and the Boatswain’s mate and another crew member stepped aboard and joined me in the cockpit of my boat. “Pretty nice boat handling there, sir,” said the coxswain. “Likewise, sir,” I replied. After greetings and salutations with the members of the USCG, I was asked for my license and registration. I told the Boatswain I’d go below and grab what he needed; it would be confusing to explain where my registration was. There was a young lady who accompanied the senior crew member, and I gave her the wheel. “You can just stay on this compass course and sail between the center span of the bridge,” I said, “I’m sure you’ve done some sailing.” “Actually, I’ve never been on a sailboat in my entire life,” said the smiling crew. After I explained a few things to note while steering my boat, I gave her the wheel, and then went below to get my documents. When I came back to the cockpit, I noticed how true Reverie’s wake was and said to the crew at the helm, “You’re doing a great job.” “Thanks,” she said, smiling.

The inspection was a standard drill: License? Check. Registration? Check. Life jackets? Check. Fog horn? Check. Fire extinguishers? Check. Type IV life (throwable PFD)? No check. I had a throwable Type IV last summer, but it got tossed and wasn’t replaced — oops — so I grabbed a couple of new ones for the season.

Other than that, the inspection was smooth and Reverie was good to go and in compliance with the Coast Guard’s rules and regulations. When the boatswain’s mate and crew were ready to leave my boat, I sailed alongside the Defender 30 and the two sailors climbed aboard.

“Thank you, sir, and have a good sail,” said the Boatswain’s mate.

“Thank you, sir, will do,” I said as the Coxswain turned to port, and steered his boat off toward Jamestown. It was a beautiful day as I continued sailing north in 15 knots of southwest wind.

Having the USCG on and above the water is a good thing. Besides their search-and-rescue operations, and other duties, simply knowing of their presence keeps us aware of, and paying attention to, all of the details involved in maintaining and operating a boat. (My previous two columns allude to this, see “Grounded, redux,” and “General Slocum,” in my archive.) USCG inspections are done on a regular schedule for all of the Block Island ferries for the safety of all on board. Furthermore, if we ever do find ourselves in a maritime predicament, the Coast Guard is more often than not the first people we’ll try to contact. The Coast Guard is always ready.

Many merchant sailors, commercial fisherman and recreational sailors and boaters I know have been boarded by the USCG. In 1980, my younger brother Pat was coming around Quonset Point and heading west toward Wickford Harbor after digging clams one freezing day in February. A Coast Guard 44 utility boat pulled alongside my brother’s 22-foot Lima skiff, boarded his boat and proceeded to inspect his safety gear, and product. They did a quick and cursory inspection and said my brother’s rig was “good to go,” on his way to his dock. My brother and I agree that being randomly boarded by the Coast Guard keeps on our A game. Things can go terribly wrong on any boat, and having proper navigational and lifesaving equipment can mean a matter of life and death.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the USCG has been in high visibility mode. Over the course of the seasons, we will sometimes note that a ferry may have a random Defender 30, with a 50-caliber gun mounted on the bow, just show up to escort the ferry over to Block Island. We will call this a conspicuous display of strength. This lets people with bad intentions know that someone is paying attention. Shortly after 9/11, I was sailing on the west side of the bay and was on a tack that had me aiming directly at the Naval War College. As I pushed my boat to windward, I heard a mechanical groaning sound, and the metallic sound of a person’s voice. It took me a few minutes to figure out, that the noises were coming from a huge Coast Guard vessel, and there was a sailor tracking my boat with a large bow-mounted gun. Then, I heard the command, “Sailing vessel approaching, change your course. I repeat, change your course and tack to the southwest.” What had happened that particular day, was that I was on a course in restricted waters and the Coast Guard ship was tracking me with a high-caliber weapon. I finally connected the dots, and immediately tacked my boat and headed toward Jamestown. Indeed, the Coast Guard is always ready — Semper paratus.