It was a hot Saturday afternoon in July, and the river was busy with boats returning from the ocean waiting to pass through a narrow railroad bridge a quarter mile from the inlet. There were recreational boats of all sizes—large sportfish and cruiser types, personal watercraft and outboards of very description. While waiting to make the passage, a familiar orange vessel appeared off our starboard side with its blue revolving light shining brightly. It was a Coast Guard RIB, short for rigid inflatable boat, and a guardsman was standing on the bow motioning to our boat.
There are specific safety items necessary to pass a Coast Guard vessel inspection and others that are not required, but should be aboard, like the Personal Locator Beacon. The best ways to keep it together and handy should an emergency arise is in a “ditch bag” like this one.
“Good afternoon, Captain,” he said. “We would like to conduct a safety inspection of your vessel. May we board, please?”
Coast Guard vessels like these rigid inflatables are used to conduct safety inspections of recreational and commercially licensed vessels. A two-person team led by the boarding officer will come aboard, check for required documentation and safety equipment and review the general condition of your boat.
Coast Guard inspections of this type are mandatory so the question was a courtesy. A boater can either be pleasant or confrontational, but there is never a good reason for not complying. This is especially true when you think about the difficult job these hard-working men and women undertake, and that they put their lives on the line when called on to make hazardous rescues at sea.
So my appropriate response was a pleasant greeting and a simple welcome aboard. The coxswain, the guardsman at the helm of the RIB, brought the boat alongside and two others, wearing dark blue uniforms and bright orange PFDs, stepped aboard.
The boarding officer announced his intention: to identify the vessel, the owner and the operator, check the paperwork and conduct an inspection to be sure it had all the safety equipment required by Federal Regulation for that classification of recreational vessel.
“You may continue through the bridge,” the officer said, “and proceed to your destination while we conduct the inspection so we don’t slow your progress.”
He told us that the crew in the RIB would follow along and pick them up when the inspection was finished. He then asked for our vessel registration, which is mandatory, and the operator’s driver’s license, social security number and date of birth, which is voluntary. Since we were in a state that requires a vessel operator to have a safe boating course certification, that certificate was also provided with the other documents. The documents were passed from the boarding officer to the other guardsman, who entered the data into a hand-held electronic touch-pad device with a built-in printer.
The next step was a check of the mandatory safety equipment on board. Since we were wearing inflatable PFDs at the time, they were checked to assure both were Coast Guard-approved and properly armed. An approved PFD is required for every person on board a recreational vessel, so we keep a valise stowed in the console with four additional Type III units. A throwable floatation device is also required, which can consist of an approved life ring or a flotation cushion. That was also checked to be sure it was in good condition.
During the inspection, an interesting discussion with the boarding officer ensued about the whole procedure. He explained that it was the Coast Guard’s policy to do safety inspections as a method of outreach to the boating public to impress upon them the importance of carrying the necessary safety equipment in case of an emergency.
Next, he asked to see and test our audible signaling device, a horn, which can be an electric horn mounted on the vessel or a hand-held device powered by a compressed air canister. Then he requested we show him the boat’s emergency flares to make sure we had them aboard and that they were not expired. All flares have expiration dates stamped on them and should be properly disposed of and replaced when that date is exceeded. The flares are kept in a “ditch bag” stowed in the console and when we took it out, the boarding officer was duly impressed. He asked if he could look inside and was surprised to see a PLB (personal locator beacon), waterproof hand-held VHF radio, additional signaling devices and flares.
When the inspection was complete, the boarding officer gave the vessel a once over, complimented us on the fact that our safety equipment went above and beyond regulations, noted the vessel was well maintained and organized, and thanked us for our cooperation. The guardsman recording the results of the inspection asked our captain to sign the touch-pad on his device, and it printed out a boarding report indicating that the vessel had no violations or warnings. If the inspection had uncovered any flagrant violations, a summons that can include civil penalties would have been issued. If the violations were minor in the judgment of the boarding officer, a warning can be issued and a follow-up inspection could be required to make sure it was satisfied. It’s important to keep any completed boarding reports aboard your vessel. These reports can be shown to Coast Guard officials in the future and can help you avoid a repeat inspection within a specified time period.
The entire experience lasted about 15 minutes, and at all times the boarding officer was courteous, friendly, knowledgeable and professional, willing to answer any questions and provide additional information on the procedure and the equipment requirements.
The question is, “Are you ready to pass a Coast Guard Safety Inspection?” If you would like to find out more about recreational vessel safety regulations, go to the Coast Guard Boating Safety Resource Center at www.uscgboating.org.
You can even find a local provider that will conduct a comprehensive safety survey of your vessel to make sure it is in top operating condition and equipped with all the necessary equipment.
The list of USCG-approved PFDs has grown in recent years to include a variety of easy-to-wear inflatables like this fanny-pack design, which auto inflates when submerged or in a manually inflated model. It is incumbent on the boat owner to make sure these PFDs are in good working condition, with the gas capsule full and with a green charging indicator light.