Illegal Docking: The Challenges and Monitoring Efforts by the US Coast Guard

Noah Silverbrook

Updated Tuesday, December 12, 2023 at 11:10 PM CDT

Illegal Docking: The Challenges and Monitoring Efforts by the US Coast Guard

The Distinction between Local and Illegal Docking Boats

Illegal docking poses a significant challenge for the US Coast Guard, who must differentiate between boats that originate on US soil and return, and vessels that originate from other countries and illegally dock on US soil. To monitor these activities, the Coast Guard relies on various communication channels such as radio, cell phone, or satellite communication to track the vessel's contact with the country it claims to be from.

The Characteristics of Illegal Docking Boats

Typically, boats used for illegal docking are small, fast RHIBs (rigid-hulled inflatable boats) or similarly sized vessels. These boats are crewed by 4 or 5 highly trained individuals, with one officer and two men on deck. The crew spends their time scanning the seas for any sign of US or Cuban patrol boats, constantly on alert for potential interception.

To successfully make an illegal landing, the crew must blend in with the locals, possess a radio for communication, have knowledge of suitable landing spots, and be familiar with local landmarks. This knowledge helps them navigate and avoid detection during their operations.

Contrasting Characteristics of Local Boats

In contrast to illegal docking boats, local boats are typically captained by individuals who have fished on the same vessel for years. These boats often carry a mix of 2 adults and 10 children, reflecting the local fishing and recreational culture.

Local boats are typically beached at a location with mild surf, and it's not uncommon for the helmsman to jump out and assist in pushing the bow onto the beach. The "lookouts" on local boats engage in casual conversations with other locals, creating a sense of community and familiarity.

The Goals and Challenges of Illegal Docking

The primary goal of an illegal docking operation is to land, carry out their intended activities swiftly, and depart undetected. However, the challenges are significant, especially when attempting to dock in populated ports or developed areas.

To dock in a populous port, the crew of an illegal vessel may need to clear it with the harbormaster first. Larger ships may need to radio ahead or have designated individuals waiting for them upon entering the harbor. These ships will also display flags indicating their national registry.

Regulatory Measures and Monitoring Efforts

The process of illegal docking is further complicated by the extensive regulations and protocols in place. Commercial vessels, for instance, are subject to heavy regulation, with cargo tracking and document inspections being routine practices. Ship traffic is closely monitored using radar and AIS integration, allowing for easy identification of vessels.

Pleasure craft docking in recreational marinas may also be subject to security checks and reporting to customs. Marine traffic can be tracked through various apps, providing details about the vessel's location, country of origin, last port, and next scheduled port. However, the Coast Guard possesses more precise tracking capabilities than civilian apps, enabling them to spot smaller "unregistered" boats more effectively.

The Role of Customs and Coast Guard Inspections

Customs plays a significant role in regulating pleasure craft, with paperwork being a key aspect. Upon disembarking, individuals on an illegal vessel may be required to present identification and, depending on their function, provide crew and/or cargo manifests. These measures help ensure compliance with regulations and identify any potential illegal activities.

Smaller "unregistered" boats are prime targets for Coast Guard inspections, as they are more likely to engage in illegal docking activities. The Coast Guard's efforts in monitoring and inspecting these vessels aim to maintain maritime security and prevent unauthorized entry or activities within US waters.

illegal docking poses significant challenges for the US Coast Guard. They rely on various monitoring techniques and communication channels to differentiate between local boats and those engaged in illegal docking. The extensive regulations, customs procedures, and inspections in place further contribute to the prevention and detection of illegal activities. Through their diligent efforts, the Coast Guard plays a crucial role in safeguarding US waters and maintaining maritime security.

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