Pete Peterson Columns
Sunday, April 1, 2012
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Big Brother is watching -- and so is the Coast Guard

I had the opportunity to work with the Coast Guard during urgent medical evacuations while stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and can state for a fact their professionalism and "can do spirit" helped saved the lives of many people.

If your vessel is in duress at sea, you're taking on water, or have a medical emergency; there is probably no finer sight than a Coast Guard cutter coming over the horizon in your direction. However, when you are just out for a day of fishing, the appearance of the "authorities" heading your way can evoke a reflexive feeling of dread, even for the most law abiding citizen. Such was the case as I was trolling for tuna near Wood's Wall. I spotted a fast moving boat on the radar running a high speed intercept course towards me and I figured it had to be the Coast Guard. Let's face it, when you are fishing, a "safety inspection" quickly diverts your attention away from finding your quarry to trying to remember when you last checked all your safety gear.

I experienced a one of these "safety inspections" while delivering a friend's boat back up the Keys after it came out of a boat yard in Key West. Never missing an opportunity to fish, I ran off-shore, hoping to dine on fresh tuna. I have to admit I wasn't too surprised when they decided to stop me since I was the only person on-board a large "go fast boat," which is commonly used for running drugs or migrants. The long range-radar, FLIR (night vision) camera, and three big outboards hanging on the transom of the boat made this vessel a "high priority target," so it was understandable when the Coast Guard decided to take a closer look.

They pulled alongside and three young "Coasties" quickly boarded the boat for a "safety inspection." The first thing they asked was, "Do you have any weapons on board?" I responded, "I have a seven-inch fishing knife." They quickly glanced back and forth at each other trying to decide if they liked that answer or not. One of them then asked what I was doing so far offshore all alone, and why I had a large nylon braided rope tied around my waist to the mid-ship cleat. I explained that I liked to keep the boat in gear when gaffing a fish and the rope around my waist was there in-case I fell over-board attempting to bring in a big fish (always the optimist). The greenest member of the boarding party immediately started quoting the Coast Guard manual, reminding me that I really needed to be wearing a life jacket while boating. I smiled and said I had no desire to be floating around in the Gulf Stream in a life jacket if I fell overboard -- what I really wanted was to get back in the boat!

There was baffled silence as they considered the validity of my logic, followed by a quick return to the safety of the Coast Guard manual: "Let's see your registration, sir." I knew they weren't going to like my answer even as the words came out of my mouth: "The boat doesn't belong to me, but I do have the owner's registration." I could tell this was not the response they wanted to hear as one of the officers' hand reflexively slid a little closer to his weapon. From the look in their eyes I could tell I had gone from being suspected of running contraband, to being investigated as a potential boat thief. I really couldn't blame them since stolen high-speed boats are not an uncommon occurrence in South Florida and the Keys. I explained to them I was a local charter captain delivering this boat back up the Keys.

I was more than a little amazed when they whipped out an i-pad looking device and told me to place my thumb on the reader. Within seconds my Coast Guard Captain's license photo and detailed personal information popped up on their screen. Obviously Big Brother is watching -- even when we are far out at sea. Thankfully, the data on their computer confirmed I was one of the "good guys" and they turned their attention back to validating the boat's registration information and completing the remainder of their safety inspection. Once they were convinced everything was on the up and up, they quickly returned to their boat to continue their patrol.

These young men were very professional throughout the entire stop, which lasted maybe 10 minutes at the most. Even though the tuna birds I had been chasing were long gone, it was comforting to know the Coast Guard was out there protecting our coast and, as always, ready to render aid to mariners in distress.

Semper Paratus -- Coast Guard

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