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A sailing license no guarantee for homeland security

2007 December 17
I thought the U.S. Coast Guard had it in for me. Every time I'd go out on a boat test, I'd get pulled over and interrogated after I returned to the harbor. We'd spend a pleasant afternoon sailing around on some new boat, but as soon as we entered the harbor, zoom, the Coasties would be alongside and they weren't friendly, either.

They'd come aboard from either a patrol boat or a big RIB and, while they were always courteous, I noticed the safeties were off on their weapons and the holsters were unbuttoned.

This was during the height of the drug interdiction wars when the Coast Guard, instead of rescuing people or maintaining the navigation infrastructure, had been pulled off those duties to become drug cops. It didn't make the old-timers happy, because they'd signed on to be knights on white horses (with red stripes), and chasing druggies wasn't particularly heroic. Of course, not long before, they'd been the toilet police when they were forced into checking for overboard discharges from the heads on recreational boats.

I finally asked if they had my picture on their wall with a target ring around it, and found out that I was high profile for a specific reason. During our test, we'd take the new boat out and I'd spend some time beating, reaching and running. We'd meet up with a helicopter or with another boat for some sailing photos, and then we'd return to harbor. All very innocent.

On Coast Guard radar, however, that's clearly a drug drop: a boat wanders around aimlessly not far offshore, has a rendezvous with another boat or helicopter, then returns to shore. When I changed my routine, the Coasties left me alone. But I knew that Big Brother was still lurking out there.

Everyone who reads this column knows that I give good rant on things such as the recent America's Cup or about sailors attempting stupid stunts just to get in the record books. But if you want a really good rant, light me off about bureaucratic intervention with sailing.

Hear that hissing sound? That's my fuse right now.

Seems that Uncle Sam is giving some thought to a couple of ideas, all in the name of homeland security. The first is to require all of us, from Optimist racers to megayacht owners, to carry a license earned by passing a proficiency test. And we'd always have to carry government-issued identification.

If that isn't enough, there's talk about requiring skippers to install expensive electronic devices on every boat that would provide a method of tracking and identifying us on radar.

At the National Small Vessel Security Summit this summer, the Department of Homeland Security outlined their concerns. What if, they asked, terrorists loaded up a speedboat with explosives and rammed a passenger ferry or a cruise ship at a dock? It's not just idle ruminations, either, because terrorists proved the concept works by attacking the USS Cole in the Middle East, killing 17 sailors and putting the ship out of commission.
Or, asked the DHS, what if terrorists put an improvised nuclear weapon, a so-called "dirty bomb," onto that same speedboat and triggered it on the San Francisco or Miami waterfront? Or what if they used boats to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into this country.

I've been around the water long enough to know that all of these are viable concerns. Where the DHS and the Coast Guard lose me is when they think that a boating license will prevent these events.

Excuse me, but guns are registered and the vast majority of crimes are committed with unregistered weapons. We already have a battle against drugs, and a large number of those busted for smuggling drugs into this country have a driver's license for one state or another.

I'm afraid that the idea of licensing boaters, besides raising my ire, is a pointless waste of taxpayer dollars. Industry numbers suggest that somewhere around 72 million people go boating every year. Who's going to issue and administer all those licenses and tests? After all, the Coast Guard has about the same manpower as the New York police department, but has to patrol 90,000 miles of coastline.

Here's an interesting point that came up at the summit in Washington: the Coast Guard is not allowed to ask for identification from a boater! It hadn't occurred to me during all my stops that not once had they asked to see a driver's license or a passport. All they wanted were the registration papers. That law will be amended, of course, and the Coasties may have that authority by the time you read this. But why do we need another license if we already have one that is acceptable for boarding an airliner or for driving a car?

With somewhere around 18 million boats on the water in this country, putting an Automatic Identification System on every boat… well, I guess I'd better run down to my stockbroker and buy up marine electronics stock because it's going to skyrocket.

Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant, tipped the licensing hand in 2006 when he said, "We're going to have to come to grips with the fact that we need to know to a degree of certainty who are operating boats out there." That had the effect of an electric cattle prod on national associations of boatbuilders and boat owners, who rallied their members. Before he was lynched, Allen said the comments were "off the cuff," but it certainly showed where the government is looking.

A good rant should offer some solutions to the issue, but I'm not sure what to suggest. I certainly don't want to see the nautical version of 9/11 in one of our harbors, but on the other hand, I don't think we'll stop terrorists by asking everyone to hold up their right hand and promise to play nice.

There have been suggestions of a maritime "Civil Defense" network that would use boaters as the eyes and ears to create a "neighborhood watch" for suspicious activities on the water. I think that's a better idea than trying to give us licenses.

We're also going to have to give up some of our freedoms on the water, particularly if you sail around harbors with ships or military sites. In case you hadn't noticed, most harbors have areas that are already off-limits and you'll find yourself intercepted by unfriendly patrol boats if you wander in the wrong waters. Again, I think that's something we can live with rather than submitting to more Big Brother licensing. At one point, Allen said, "What I'm trying to do is to kind of stick my toe in the water and see if I get bit by a piranha."

Well, admiral, consider yourself bitten.