The seven-meter rigid hull inflatable boat carried us across a light chop on the purple sea. There is something about the Gulf Stream that makes the sea a deep purple. I often stared into the depths wondering how many fish would get a go at me if I was sinking to the sea floor 700 fathoms below. I sat on the sponson, gripping the life line and felt the weight of my body armor and the Berretta on my belt with each bounce of the hull. My preferred job was to be the guy operating the boat. That was why I joined the Coast Guard, after all. I had no desire to be the guy climbing off the small boat and onto the sailboat we were racing toward in front of us a few hundred yards away. In the opposite direction, past the widening V of our small boat’s wake was our ship: a glistening white 110-foot patrol boat with the well known diagonal orange stripe on the bow that parted the light chop with a small splash as it passed through each wave.
The captain had made contact with the sailboat prior to our departing the cutter. He gave them the usual orders, “Sailing vessel off my starboard bow, this is the United States Coast Guard. Muster your crew on deck, maintain heading and speed, and prepare to be boarded”. The USCG has the right to board any US flag vessel on the high seas, as well as any foreign flag vessel within our territorial waters extending out 12 NM. This “right” is written into law. 14 U.S. Code § 89
• (a) The Coast Guard may make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection, and suppression of violations of laws of the United States.
I knew little of this law when I joined the Coast Guard. The right of the Coast Guard to board a vessel was only briefly covered in a seamanship school I previously attended in hopes of making a career as a sailor. (My life didn’t work out that way.) My only contact with the Coast Guard prior to becoming one of them was being boarded once during a sailboat delivery from Grand Cayman to Venezuela. That trimaran was a UK flagged vessel, but the captain I was working for, a grizzled, wrinkled, weathered old German with an affinity for speedos, gave the Coast Guard permission to board our boat a couple hundred nautical miles south of Jamaica somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean.
Having grown up in western Colorado, I had a strong mistrust of authority, as did everyone I grew up with. I think there is something in the water in Colorado. Or at least there used to be. The general attitude was “leave me alone, and I will leave you alone.” The best government was a small government. We grew up with a respect for private property because if you didn’t, there was a good chance you would get shot at. I had learned of the constitution only in a basic way in high school civics classes, but I did know what the 4th amendment was. All that I was part of that day as we raced across a small part of the Florida Straights to board a boat we did not suspect of anything but were going to board, anyway, just because we could, seemed, at least to my simple understanding of the constitution to be, kind of messed up, and at the worst, un-fucking-constitutional.
The boat coxswain matched the sailboat’s speed and came alongside, edging the bow into the hull of the larger boat at an angle to allow us to climb over the wire rope lifelines onto the deck of the sailboat. The owners were polite, but, as usual, annoyed at the intrusion. Standard procedure was to keep the people on board in the cockpit, and search the vessel, “for officer safety”. The training goes: search all “man-sized” spaces to ensure there is nobody else on board that could do you harm and that the vessel was safe i.e. not sinking or about to burst into flame. My supervisor and I went below while the Boarding Officer stayed on deck and went through the owner’s documents and asked questions from a checklist to ensure they had all the required safety equipment. I went forward to the V-berth. My supervisor, the BM2, said, “Close the door to check that closet, and when it’s closed have a good look around”. I closed the door, looked in the closet, the bilge, and then flipped the bird at the door outside of which my BM2 stood. I did not have it in me to search where I should not. This is why I am no longer in law enforcement. It turned out not to be my cup of horse shit.
I spent somewhere around 18 months stationed in Key West attached to that patrol boat. Much of it standing watch as we floated dark ship on dead calm nights on the Cal Sal bank under the glow of a magnificent star-filled sky as I stared off into the darkness looking for the smugglers. Many patrols ended with the rescue of rafters fleeing Castro’s Cuba, and I can say the odor of people who have been pickling in salt water for days is something that does not leave a person. We rescued a few boaters in distress and got underway in what was a storm lacking a couple mph of wind speed to make it to hurricane status. We made one big drug bust that was all intel and DEA had been watching the guys for months as they outfitted their boat with a false hull in the Bahamas. The amount of intelligence the federal agencies had filled several binders kept on the bridge with the names of suspect vessels as well as those on watch lists. All in all, I have fond memories, but it all watered the seeds of liberty from my Colorado youth and mistrust of big government and all the eyes watching what we do.
Judge Napaletono writes here (h/t Mike Schmidt)
• Liberty is rarely lost overnight. The wall of tyranny often begins with benign building blocks of safety — each one lying on top of a predecessor — eventually collectively constituting an impediment to the exercise of free choices by free people, often not even recognized until it is too late.
14 USC 89 became law in 1949. It was a building block for safety and is the reason “inquiries” are made.
My goal at the time I joined the Coast Guard was to drive boats and do search and rescue. To advance at the rate that were the drivers of said boats, Boatswainsmate, one has to become a Boarding Officer. As I advanced in rank and moved on to my next duty station in Washington state, I got orders from the USCG Maritime Law Enforcement School in Yorktown Virginia. The most important thing I learned there was that the strippers at the clubs in the area can’t actually take their clothes off. What kind of puritan idiocy is that? Hell, they even have proper strippers in Oklahoma for titties sake. I also received lessons in the case law that allows the USCG to continue with what seemed to me to be unconstitutional searches. Those searches have stood up in court time and time again. (I am sure there are those who would comment on this with much more knowledge than I and is why I followed this group of intelligent well-read degenerates across the interwebz. For lessons in liberty and smartassery.) A good breakdown of how 14 USC 89 became law can be found here, written by much smarterer peeples than me.
My experiences in that realm of things I never intended to be a part of all occurred in the early 90’s, when I was young and not nearly as jaded as I am now in my current state of being an irascible middle age jackass. Those were times when the USCG was under the umbrella of the Department of Transportation and fought Amtrak for funds. Now, after 9/11, the Patriot Act, and lord knows what else, they fall under Department of Homeland Security. I fear for what happens on the seas these days, and I wonder what eyes watch us at this very moment.