Too many random boardings? Michigan may have an answer

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Reports of overzealous boardings of boats, particularly by Coast Guard personnel in western Lake Erie, aren’t new. Indeed, over the years boaters and dealers alike have been critical of the Coast Guard randomly stopping boaters for time-consuming boardings that result in more animosity than boating safety.

Ken Alvey, president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, and a former chief of the Ohio Division of Watercraft, whose officers also stop and board boats, isn’t any stranger to the problem. “Every agency wants to keep boating safe, but in my experience the effort to do a good job can go over the top," he says. "So we’d talk it out and try to reset a necessary and acceptable balance.” Talking it out is what happened earlier this week as Alvey met with representatives of the Coast Guard and ODOW. Additional meetings between the dealers and the agencies are forthcoming.

The problem is complaints about random boardings are already ringing with the boating season just starting there. For example, a father and son were aboard Rocky Piacentino’s demo Regulator drift fishing in a group of 20-25 boats at 9:50 am when the Coast Guard randomly singled them out for boarding. Piacentino, owner of Catawba Moorings, reported that while boarding, a Coast Guard person lost footing and crashed into the canvas enclosure, ripping it up. The boarding took one hour 10 minutes and at the end, the Coast Guard said they didn’t even have a damage report form so Piacentino would have to go to the Coast Guard station to get one.

Similarly, Ted Patrick, owner of Lake & Bay Yachts Sales, has already been randomly stopped and boarded twice in the last two weeks. The second time, Patrick and the Coast Guard person recognized each other from the first boarding. Still, Patrick had to produce his driver’s license. The Coast Guard demands everyone on the boat show a driver’s license or I.D, unlike a comparable auto stop on land where everyone in the car isn’t required to show I.D. “But, I suppose I should be used to it,” chuckles Patrick. “Last summer I was boarded three times and stopped a fourth.”

It’s not just dealers who are complaining. Patrick tells of a customer who was boarded as he left the West Harbor. After the boarding, the customer went on to nearby Kelley’s Island for dinner. Upon returning from dinner, it was a two-fer night . . . the customer was boarded at the harbor entrance again!

John Schroeder at Happy Days Boating Company echoes the other dealers. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been held up on a demo ride for a Coast Guard boarding in the Portage River,” he says. “Often prospects are visibly shaken when armed men suddenly climb aboard. They don’t understand what’s happening. It shouldn’t be that way."

“Boaters say they’re alienated by it all,” says Piacentino. “They see the Coast Guard waiting outside the harbor to randomly board boats and some say they’d rather stay at the dock than go through the hassle. This shouldn’t be happening."

Fortunately, for Piacentino, at least one thing worked out well . . . that customer did buy a new Regulator. Moreover, hoping to avoid future hassles, he even took his new boat to the Coast Guard Station for a boarding. He was given a yellow boarding report form and told: “If you’re stopped and hold up this yellow report, it may keep you from being boarded again, but there’s no guarantee.”

Should there be some guarantee? Absolutely! And, Michigan may be the first state to decide legislating a happy middle ground is the best way to go. With the leadership of the Michigan Boating Industries Association, H.B. 5110 sponsored by Rep. Richard LeBlanc was overwhelmingly passed by the Michigan legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder on March 22. It specifies that a vessel displaying a safety check decal cannot be stopped unless an officer has a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” the vessel is committing a maritime law violation or is otherwise engaged in criminal activity. Now that makes sense.

Everyone wants safe boating. Safety inspections are valuable. Common sense says boaters should get them. But, common sense also says a policy of random boardings, frequently an hour or more and multiple times for the same vessel, is unreasonable. It’s a sad day when common sense has to be legislated, but kudos to MBIA for making it more enjoyable for Michigan boaters.

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