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Mike Moropoulos: Six Words No Boater Ever Wants to Hear

Surprise boarding inspection by Coast Guard is a good reminder that preparation is key to boating safety.

“May we board your vessel, sir?”

Before I get to that, why would anyone need a 22-foot ocean-going boat with 450 outboard horses galloping at a super-sprint? Maybe if you were running dope? And why would anyone else need such a small boat with that much push? If you had to catch that boat?

But first let me backlash.

We were anchored up at the edge of a productive kelp bed — actually catching juvenile white sea bass (croakers) that were acting like mackerel, all between 20 and 26 inches (legal is 28 inches). Truthfully, we were fishing for calico bass but for every one of the real bass, we were catching five croakers all on live anchovies. We bent down our barbs, quit chumming, and went to artificials; nothing worked. Absolutely gorgeous little guys all lit up with their bright bars and erected dorsal fins. Lot’s of fun with zero fatalities on release but their immature circus attitude was too dangerous — so we moved on and left them alone.

But this isn’t a fish story; it is a boating story. Early on while fishing that kelp bed I saw a far-off, relatively small boat go by making more whitewater than Niagara Falls. But it looked suspicious — its sides were bright orange and there is only one entity that I know of that uses that orange on open water not in harbors — the U.S. Coast Guard. I couldn’t figure out where they were going; no boats in sight, good weather and no evident problem.

Later that same morning we were anchored up on a small rock pile right in front of Santa Barbara Harbor — calico bass again — and that same orange rocket went by about 100 yards away. I knew what was coming; it slowed, circled, and much like a Fish and Game boat does (only faster) zeroed in on us. I’m sure they were salivating. The approach was from our starboard side and as they sidled up one of the crew members identified their group of four as the U.S. Coast Guard (surprise.)

“May we board your vessel, sir?” I’ve always wondered what would happen if you said no, but I was certainly not willing to find out, so with my brother and son aboard I very confidently answered: “Uh, yeah, sure.” It’s just like having a red light in your rear-view mirror, knowing you have done nothing illegal; or a game warden saying: “Hi, fellas, how you doing?” even though you are legal and licensed; no matter the circumstances it is very unnerving. So, too, is a small orange boat bee-lining it for you, But in this case I wasn’t so sure and the two guys who “boarded our vessel” were not smiling.

I thought it might help our boating friends to write about the experience and take them through the gauntlet with me in checking out their own boats against a checklist of the regulations.

First, and for this I have no explanation, they lifted a floorboard and looked into the bilge. Of course that was after he asked how many persons were aboard. Since it was pretty obvious I began to look at that one as part of a regular procedure, but I cringed when my brother, Lou, who is somewhat of a wiseacre said 3½ because he was 82 and should count as more than one. Not even a hint of a smile on that one. They weren’t boarding this boat to laugh at our jokes. One of the crew was asking the questions and the other was clip-boarding a form (or maybe a citation). I got the impression he was relatively new at this.

Now I know enough about boating to know that you do not want a USCG citation. It isn’t the kind of citation that says: “Hey, good job.” Just to qualify my feelings about the USCG before I poke some fun, I respect the service and the job it does; its purpose is for our good and I admire the Guard for the work its crews do on our behalf and am happy with their presence. If I were in trouble I’d like these same guys tossing us a line or aiming a stream of water our way. But being boarded is not fun. Following is the procedure we went through, maybe not in the proper order but you’ll get the idea.

“Do you have ventilation, sir?” I had son Craig press the bottom-right switch on the console. Surprisingly to me, and I think the Coast Guarder, the blower sounded off. Good enough.

“Do you have a throw device?” “Craig, grab that blue seat cushion somewhere in the mess that is our cabin.” Check, USCG approved, I knew we were OK on that one.

“Sir, may I see your personal flotation equipment.” Uh, oh. Lashed to the tower (with a slip knot) was my vinyl life jacket case with a Velcro zipper. Now I was worried. I knew that was raunchy, mildewed, grungy, faded, frayed and had a broken Velcro zipper. I set it on the engine hatch, opened it up and dumped out six bright orange vests, four adult and two for children, all approved, no rust or mildew, all in perfect condition. Surprise!

“May I please see your fire extinguisher? Extinguisher or extinguishers?” I showed him four, all in the green. Seems that got me by that one.

He then asked if I had an anti-flame device on my fuel system. Yes, I had an approved flame-arrester on my marine-type carburetor. He did not ask me to raise the engine hatch.

What about a sound device? Yes, I had a shiny coach-type whistle that he kind of wrinkled up his nose at, so I got out my rusty old gas-operated cannister. That was fine, and as a relief to me he said I needn’t demonstrate. After they left I pressed the button and a very obnoxious blast came forth. It actually worked. Good product.

Oh, yeah, registration please. Now really nervous time. “Craig, please hand me that little black brief case.” Up on the hatch cover with it, press the flap-release and — nothing. Press it again — nothing. Grab it firmly, yank like the devil and break the rust loose. Much to my surprise — and I think to the guardsman’s as well — there was my current paid registration in a plastic bag. I had even placed the stamps on the hull. I explained how relieved and proud I was at being able to produce that document, giving him a chance to smile. He didn’t share the humor.

One last item, and this one I was very confident about. I had just purchased four new flares with current dates. I also showed him eight others I had sandbagged but I turned a little pale when I saw the dates: invalid after Dec. 1, 1991. He advised me to get rid of them since they can be dangerous. (I really think they would still work.)

The only thing they did not ask about was the placard reminding boaters about pollution; maybe he just didn’t want me to raise that heavy engine hatch because I did have one posted. And while he didn’t ask, there was no alcoholic beverage on board; there never is on this boat.

I’m not bragging but to be very honest about the entire episode, I was really proud of myself, even though a lot of it was luck. My boat had been down for several weeks and other than buying the flares I paid no heed to all those other things. So, heck, I expected a pat on the back at the least, I had just posted a shutout even though my life jacket bag looked like something from a recycling bin. (I have since bought a new one.)

No such thing, just a copy of the report telling me that I would be exempt from any further regulation checks for a period of time. But passing out plaudits is not their job; making certain we boat safely is. And if we don’t, then bailing us out of trouble becomes their job, oftentimes at their own risk of life. They did their job and I actually thank them for that. But c’mon, you guys, we’re not criminals until we are.

Can you believe this? I actually had my current registration on board and proudly presented it.

I pass this along in an effort to encourage boaters to check out their own vessels, and even though I tried to invoke a little humor it is a very serious circumstance. While I was really lucky to get through it, I kind of feel that some of us would have a tough time doing so.

One of the most bothersome things about the boarding was that they never asked how we had done fishing! But I sincerely believe that the U.S. Coast Guard is one federal agency from which we receive our money’s worth. There’s nothing wrong with them wanting to see our PFDs — it is the law.

I know they are not paid by the smile, but, heck, how about at least a “nice fish,” a grin, or a pat on the back, even if it was blind luck!

Noozhawk contributor Mike Moropoulos is a longtime outdoors writer in Santa Barbara.

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