Seamanship Skills

Pro Tips for Navigating Port Security

Port security, U.S. Coast Guard boat, Patrol boat

The U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol handle port security in the United States.

The U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol–both components of the Department of Homeland Security–handle port security in the United States. Local law enforcement agencies and the FBI also have a role in port security at the local and regional level.

U.S. Imports Lots of Food

containers in a port, shipping containers

Nearly 25 million shipping containers arrive by sea, truck and rail every year in the U.S.

Each year more than 11 million maritime containers arrive at our seaports. At land borders, another 11 million arrive by truck and 2.7 million by rail. Homeland Security is responsible for knowing what is inside those containers, whether it poses a risk to the American people and ensuring that all proper revenues are collected. As an example, one in five food items is now imported.

American consumers demand fresh limes and blueberries year round and, as a result, during the winter months in the U.S. nearly 80 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables on our tables come from other countries. With the ever-increasing amount of trade, the agricultural risks to the United States grow. The threat to crops and livestock is real.

What are Protection Zones?

Coast Guard gun boat, Coast Guard patrol boat

Protection zones are established to protect military bases and vessels as well as sensitive shoreside facilities.

In response to this threat and others, the U.S. Coast Guard has established “protection zones” around all U.S. Navy vessels, tank vessels and large-capacity cruise vessels, even when underway. U.S. Navy bases, U.S. Coast Guard bases and some shoreside facilities such as nuclear power plants are also in protection zones. Non-military vessels (this means you) are not allowed within 100 yards (91.44 m) of these protection zones. To do so can rack up serious civil penalties and even imprisonment.

These protection zones vary from port to port and from facility to facility, but ignorance of the protection zones is not a viable excuse. Having said that, law-abiding boaters sometimes find themselves unable to comply with the letter of the law without hitting a jetty, for example. In such cases, common sense and good communication should prevail.

America's Waterway Watch Program

waterway watch program, anti-terrorism at sea

The America’s Waterway Watch was established in 2005 to tighten security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Government officials view the recreational boating community as an ally. We can do our part (and perhaps stave off more stringent regulations and surveillance measures) by becoming familiar with the Coast Guard’s America’s Waterway Watch program. Think of it as a neighborhood watch program for the waterways.

It is not the intent of America’s Waterway Watch to spread paranoia or to encourage spying on one another and it is not a surveillance program; it is instead a simple deterrent to potential terrorist activity. The purpose of the program is to allow boaters and others who spend time along the water to help the authorities counter crime and terrorism.

To report suspicious behavior, call the National Response Center at 877-249-2824 (877-24WATCH). For immediate danger to life or property, call 911 or contact the U.S. Coast Guard on Marine VHF Channel 16.

Staying out of Trouble

VHF radio, VHF channel 16

Listen to VHF Channel 16 and check the local notice to mariners for alerts before heading out.

Staying safe and responsible requires a little forethought and vigilance on your part. Following the steps outlined below will help ensure a trouble-free journey and keep you and your crew out of the headlines.

  • Before you leave, check the current charts for the area in which you will be traveling and identify any security areas. Security zones are highlighted and outlined in magenta with special notes regarding the specific regulations pertaining to that area.
  • Check the latest Local Notice to Mariners (posted at some marinas) and identify any potential security areas that may not be shown on the chart.
  • Prior to your departure, listen to VHF Channel 16 for any Sécurité alerts from the Coast Guard (departing cruise ships, U.S. Navy vessels, fuel tankers, etc.) for the area you will be cruising.
  • Talk to other boaters in your anchorage or marina about the areas where you will be traveling. They may have tips and suggestions on any potential security zones or special areas they may have encountered on their way.

Stay Alert While Underway

Coast Guard boarding, Coast Guard inspection

If the U.S. Coast Guard hails you or boards your boat, it’s important to comply with its instructions.

There can be much going on while operating a boat, so mind the outlined magenta security areas noted on your charts. Here’s some other tips to consider:

  • Look for vessels with blue or red warning lights in port areas and, if approached, listen carefully and strictly obey all instructions given to you.
  • Keep your VHF radio switched to VHF Channel 16 and keep your ears tuned for bulletins, updates and possible requests for communication.
  • Avoid commercial port operation areas, especially those that involve military, cruise line or petroleum facilities. Observe and avoid other restricted areas near power plants, national monuments, etc.
  • If you need to pass within 100 yards (91. 44m) of a U.S. Navy vessel for safe passage, you must contact the U.S. Navy vessel or the Coast Guard escort vessel on VHF Channel 16 to let them know your intentions.
  • We advise that if government security or the U.S. Coast Guard hails you, do exactly what they say, regardless of whether you feel their instructions have merit.

Working Together

Coast Guard cutter and plane, Coast Guard search and rescue

Recreational boaters working with the U.S. Coast Guard can deter potential terrorist activity.

The Department of Homeland Security has a tall task and working with the recreational boating community will help ensure a safe and trouble-free time on the water.

Article courtesy of Waterway Guide.