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Conch Life
The Florida Keys
2009 – 2011
Coast Guard Cutter
~ Coast Guard Cutter ~
Key West Coast Guard Boarding
Safely Insane or Insanely Safe
"You're kidding me. It's a 10' dinghy, and we're supposed to have 3 flares on board?!"

Normally, we are as polite as can be when it comes to interacting with some authority who's commanded our attention. In Florida, we had ample presence of four such agencies who could halt, search, and seize without just cause (USCG, FFWC, US Customs & Border Patrol, and County Sheriffs), so maintaining a cool head boded well for quick release.

But at this point we were both a little stunned. Don and I were rather proud of our boating education, and thought we were complying with all the rules and regulations. It just made sense to be as prepared as possible for the safety of our vessel and ourselves.

But when retuning to Re Metau from a night of carousing on Key West, the Coast Guard stopped our dinghy and asked to board. Ok, so they never really boarded us. They just tied us up to the side of their boat. We promptly handed over our IDs and waited for them to begin the interrogation.

"Where are you coming from and where are you headed?"

"Well – we're coming from over there," Don pointed toward shore "and we're headed over there" Don pointed toward the flotilla of anchored boats 150 yards away.

It was pretty obvious. I just love it when people are required to ask ridiculous questions, like airport security's 'Did anyone put anything in your bags without your knowledge?' query. It seemed the young uniformed stud was feeling like we were being a bit belligerent. From his high deck, he gravely stared down at his two disheveled captives huddled in a tiny rubber boat, and started to run down the clipboard of scripted questions.

"Registration number?" Don bent his head and read off the clearly visible 3" high numbers stuck on the side of the dinghy's tubes.

"Are you sure that's a '6'?" Don bent his head in the other direction and verified the 3" high numbers on that side of the dinghy read the same. Ok, maybe at this point we were getting a little patronizing.

Diana in the Dink
~ Diana in the Dink ~

"Do you have your registration papers onboard?"

I hoped I was the only one who overheard Don's mumbled discourse about the absurdity of requiring us to carry a document that had the identical information as the sticker posted on the back and the numbers pasted on the sides. With all the permits and insignias we were required to display, our little inflatable was beginning to look like a public bulletin board!

Bartering for a Pardon
"It's onboard the big boat, right over there. If you'd like to come board us on that boat I can give it to you, along with the clean report we got from the boarding we had 3 months ago." I batted my eyes innocently.

"You're supposed to keep your registration paper on board at all times!" the boatswain's mate stated as he scribbled furiously on his clipboard.

At this point, a more amiable petty officer joined the interrogation. We exchanged some words about the probability of this fragile tissue thin paper lasting more than a week in the dink where EVERYTHING gets wet. He suggested we get a water-proof bag for it. I had one of those bags onboard the dinghy once. It did a wonderful job of sealing in the puddle of condensation it generated from Florida's summer heat and humidity. It would have been great as an emergency water maker!

Hoping to improve our standing Don added "We're the only boat over there with the anchor light on."

The petty officer indicated that although he appreciated our adherence to this requirement, the Coast Guard was just not able to enforce that law with the number of vessels anchored in the harbor. So much for trying to make a good impression.

Escaping the Madness
Meanwhile, other dinghies began emerging from the harbor – many with no lights – most with pilots who were probably inebriated to some extent. We watched them start at a leisurely pace that briskly accelerated once they caught sight of the flashing blue lights. The Port Security Boat pilot aimed a blinding spotlight on the swarm of renegade mariners and over a megaphone commanded them to stop. But those shrewd skippers knew a chase would not occur with our dinghy tied up alongside, and continued to run for the shelter of their vessels.
Mallory Square in Key West
~ Mallory Square in Key West ~

"Look at them go!" the stunned boatswain's mate grumbled at his escaping quarry.

"I may have to start shooting at them" the petty officer teased.

"Oh – don't do that" I protested. "Those inflatables just don't take bullets that well."

I was hoping this jovial banter helped to build a rapport with the crew. Surly we deserved some empathy since we'd been so compliant. But alas, the vessel check could not be stopped midstream.

I Fought the Law …
"Do you have two personal flotation devices on board?" the boatswain's mate continued undeterred.

I extracted them from stowage and proudly displayed them.

"Put them on." This guy must've been trying to make rank!

"Do you have an anchor?"

I was hoping a simple 'Yes' would suffice. It was buried somewhere under the oars, gas tank, boarding step, cart, dock lines, air pump, bailing pump, cable lock, throw-able floatation cushions, and the seat bag that held the repair kit, flashlight, spare lines, towels, tools, the aforementioned waterproof bag and various other sundries. Unfortunately, a major excavation to supply the evidence was required.

"Do you have any sound-making device, such as a whistle or air horn?"

I felt like giving them a sample of the best sound making device I know of – me screaming at these interminable demands. I dug around in the bag but was unable to find the flat, little whistles in its dark recesses. The boatswain's mate seemed a little smug to have been able to catch us on another technicality, and carved another checkmark on his report. He was going to make his quota tonight!

At Pepitos
~ Punch-Drunk at Pepitos ~
…And The Law Won
Then the inquiry regarding flares was posed. I was able to dig an old one out of the bag, and handed it up to him hoping he wouldn't check the expiration date. But one was not enough and the debate with the petty officer ensued.

"When traveling after dark, you need to carry 3 flares on board" the boatswain's mate decreed.

Don challenged that we understood this requirement was only for vessels 16' or larger. The petty officer tried tempering the dispute by informing us that we shouldn't believe everything we read. It was very astute of him to point this out to us because previously we had taken everything in written form as gospel – including the USCG.mil website that stated "The Coast Guard requires that all boats OVER 16' carry a minimum of 3 approved signals."

The boatswain's mate put a final checkmark on his report, ripped our copy off the clipboard and handed it over to Don.

"Will there be a fine for this?" we dejectedly asked.

"You will receive notice from the Coast Guard. Keep the receipt from your new flares and that will most likely help your case. Chances are if this is your first citation, there won't be any fine." the petty officer assured us as he tossed off our lines.

Psychotic Reconciliation
Typically independent nonconformist, cruisers have a sort of love – hate relationship with Coasties. We're irritated by their lawful intrusion into our vessels and voyages, yet we are overjoyed to see them when in peril.

I groused all the way back to the boat that a 10' tender is only meant to take the crew ashore and back aboard. If the motor quits, you start rowing – chances are a Good Samaritan will come along and give you a tow. If none is about and the current threatens to carry you out to sea, toss the anchor and call TowBoatUS – conveniently stored on the cell phone's speed dial. That was my plan.

On the other hand, I could conceive of situations, however remote, where having flares and whistles onboard might be of assistance. Moreover, I knew that the Coast Guard was often put in harm's way when sent to rescue maritime travelers in distress, and thus rationalized their duty to verify that those they are charged to protect are as prepared as possible.

I do have a great deal of respect for them and it is possible that a time may come when we'll be calling on them for rescue. After the boarding, this schizophrenic debate continued inside my head for days. But it really doesn't matter. We now have enough paraphernalia stowed in Dinky Duck to make a nighttime transatlantic crossing – should pure lunacy ever strike.