|Back when there were less than 50 stars on the flag, our Founding Fathers put the 4th Amendment in place to protect against unreasonable search and seizure. None of them owned a sailboat. If they had, things might be different.|
I know a number of people who read this aren't Americans, so here is the Cliff Notes version of the 4th Amendment and why it is so important. The 4th Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. The Bill of Rights were intended to guarantee a number of personal freedoms - things like freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, the right to a fair trial etc. The 4th Amendment is all about freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects." If you live on land, the police can't enter and search your house without reasonable cause and a search warrant in their hands. If you're driving down the road, the police can't stop and search your car without reasonable cause. However, if you live on a boat or just sail it on weekends, all bets are off and the US Coast Guard can stop and board your boat at will and without cause. And they can do it whether you're sailing in US territorial waters or just happen to be sailing off the coast of New Zealand. And before you start mumbling about them needing to protect our borders (which might seem like a reasonable argument...or not), bear in mind that they can board your boat if you're sleeping on it in a marina or if you're cruising along an inland lake or river which isn't anywhere near Canada or Mexico.
Crazy, right? How could our Founding Fathers have ever let this one slip through? I found a great article by Clark Beek on Sailfeed which explains the historical origins of this particular breed of craziness. Basically, way back when, there were these boats called "revenue cutters" which were allowed to board vessels to make sure that they had paid tariffs on their cargo. Kind of like the IRS and their power to audit. People didn't live on boats back then, so the whole personal liberty thing wasn't really top of mind. Times have changed, but the original Revenue Cutter Act of 1790 has continued to be upheld. As Clark Beek points out, a number of the challenges have been by drug smugglers and, as they aren't the most sympathetic of characters, the general public hasn't been all that moved. And although there are around 16 million registered boats in the States and 75 million Americans who go boating each year, people probably have other priorities than a grass roots movement to change this act. Although I don't do drugs, I almost refused to take a random drug test many years ago at work because I thought it was an infringement of my 4th Amendment rights. In the end I took the test because I decided I would rather have a job than fight the powers that be. I chose the road of less hassle. So I can see why boaties haven't made challenging the US Coast Guard's powers their focus either. It would be a real hassle.
So what do the US Coast Guard actually do when they board your boat? Although they don't have to tell you why they're boarding your boat, they'll often be checking your documentation, safety gear, making sure you haven't had too much to drink and that you're not dumping stuff in the water that doesn't belong in it (like oil, sewage and fuel). According to Clark Beek, they're also using your boat as a training exercise. It takes some skill to board a boat and the men and the women of the US Coast Guard need to keep in practice. So they sometimes practice on your average boat. You know, the kind which they have absolutely no reason to believe is smuggling drugs or engaged in other illegal activities.
There is a great thread on Cruisers Forum which was started by someone who was boarded for a safety inspection. The thread has the usual random tangents and rants, but it is a great insight into what it is actually like to be a boatie in the States. It sounds like pretty much everyone gets boarded at some point or another. Most accounts you read of Coast Guard boardings talk about them being polite and respectful and that your best bet is to just smile, nod and stand out of their way. It is especially important to smile and nod when they're carrying assault rifles and they have machine guns on their boats aimed at you. And I guess that's about all you can do unless you want to risk 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000. You can read more about their policy for boarding here.
Based on all this, you might think we would go for registering our boat in New Zealand, but that won't really help us out when we're sailing in the States. And I wonder if it might possibly make us more of a target if we're foreign flagged. Plus there is the humongous hassle of having to report in every time you move your boat in the States. If you arrive by car into the States, you don't have to check in with the authorities as you drive from city to city, but if you're on a foreign flagged boat, it is a whole different ball game.
So on balance, I guess we'll go with registering our boat in the States. Nice knowing you 4th Amendment. I'm trading you in for less hassle. And it's cheaper than registering your boat in New Zealand so that's a bonus. After all, if you're going to sell out, there might as well be some financial benefit.
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