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What to do when the Coast Guard comes along side your boat

I’ve been stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard 5 or 6 times in the past few years. Not because I did anything wrong, I was just the lucky boat chosen for a random Vessel Safety Check, herein referred to as VSC. In this blog post I will share what I learned, how you should handle it, how to be prepared, and a funny story. Remember, the U.S Coast Guard can board your vessel at any time and for any reason… or no reason at all.

What to do. What not to do.

First, as their vessel is approaching with blue lights flashing, remain calm. Seriously, there is no reason for you to be alarmed, as long as the driver is not drinking and you aren’t carrying any drugs. Second rule is to follow instructions you are being given, which will likely be to put your vessel in neutral. On the occasions that I have been stopped, I have always been told, “You haven’t done anything wrong, this is just a random vessel safety check”. This is not only reassuring, but also diffuses anyone who may be getting defensive or dislikes authority. Don’t become defensivethe men and women of the Coast Guard are not here to ruin your day on the water, they are here to make sure we live to see another day on the water.

But what are they looking for?

Well… drugs, illegal or suspicious activities, illegal fishing. But mostly they are looking to make sure you are carrying a lifejacket for everyone onboard, have flares that aren’t expired, and have proper licensing and registration. Every Spring, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary conducts voluntary VSC’s at local marinas, and conveniently, at launch ramps. They will go through all your safety gear, documents, etc. and ensure that you are prepared in the event that you are one of those boaters selected at random. You even get a sticker for it, just like you get from the dentist. (What? I still get a sticker from the dentist…)

Want to check your own boat? That’s an option too, and by visiting the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Website you can view a webpage or printable version of the VSC. Even if you think you’re good-to-go, isn’t it better to know before you go? I think so.

Now, the funny story

I was on a mid-summer charter several years ago, departing Norwalk, CT and day tripping down to the Statue of Liberty. I was running a 30 foot Sea Ray and as we cruised around the tip of Manhattan, I hear the chirp of a siren and see the orange hull and flashing blue light. To be honest I thought I was speeding in a No Wake Zone. Turns out I wasn’t violating any laws, I was just another random VSC. Of course, we were idling near the Statue of Liberty, so I’m guessing they were making sure we were tourists and not terrorists. Two USCG members boarded our boat and proceeded to go through a checklist of items. I reassured all 6 of my passengers that this was routine and nothing to be alarmed about. Their response? “Oh no, this is exciting, we think it’s great!” I was sweating like a hostage, and they were amused! Just as the USCG wrapped up their inspection, my passengers asked the two handsome, hunky Coast Guard guys, “Can we take some pictures with you!?” I couldn’t believe it.

Three days later as I was leaving Huntington, NY at midnight, with a group of party animals that ate and drank themselves silly. There go the blue lights again. “Sir, when was the last time your vessel was inspected by the United States Coast Guard?” “Umm… three days ago.” “You are free to go, have a great night Captain.”


Thank you to all the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard. Your service is greatly appreciated.