For boat owners and captains along US coasts and waterways, following boating safety regulations is second nature. However, after 9/11, additional homeland security restrictions were enacted to protect critical infrastructure and waterborne commerce.
Violating these expanded security and safety zones could result in fines or other enforcement action. To avoid running afoul of the rules, mariners should understand which boating activities could be considered suspicious or illegal.
This guide examines five types of boating activities that could be deemed security risks and prompt investigation by the US Coast Guard, port authorities, or other agencies:
I. Operating Near Bridges or In Shipping Channels
Several bridges and stretches of major shipping channels have mandatory security zones extending 100 yards or more from the structure. These include places like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and the Charleston Harbor Shipping Channel.
Boating, anchoring, or drifting into these zones without explicit permission is illegal. Doing so risks collision and disruption of critical transportation networks for maritime commerce, posing a potential homeland security issue.
Fines for violating bridge and shipping channel security zones start at $5,000. Repeat or intentional violations are considered criminal acts, with penalties exceeding $10,000 and potential imprisonment for captain and crew.
II. Impeding Passage of Other Vessels
Whether in congested harbors or remote bays, impeding passage of certain vessels can prompt an enforcement response. For example, large commercial ships, tugs, and certain government boats have right of way.
Obstructing or delaying their movements directly affects homeland security, public safety, and commerce. At a minimum, captains who neglect to yield face investigation and citations. But in extreme cases, charges of criminal negligence or terrorism could apply.
III. Transporting Unauthorized Passengers or Cargo
Coast Guard teams routinely inspect pleasure crafts and fishing boats near borders, sensitive sites, or high-traffic zones. They check for unauthorized passengers who could be involved in illegal immigration, trafficking, or smuggling.
Inspectors also look for cargo that may be illicit drugs, weapons, explosives, or other contraband. Vessels attempting to avoid examinations or caught transporting prohibited goods or people may be seized. At minimum, violations incur stiff fines starting around $10,000.
IV. Boating Without Proper Lighting or Identification
A fundamental Coast Guard rule is that vessels must clearly display current registration numbers and use required lighting, like running lights at night.
Boats that try disguising or providing false ID numbers, running dark in sensitive zones, or taking evasive action upon sighting authorities could face charges. Lacking proper lighting or identification makes it extremely difficult for agencies to track, monitor, and respond to questionable maritime activities related to homeland security.
V. Anchoring or Loitering Near Critical Infrastructure
Many power plants, fuel facilities, military bases and other critical sites have waterfront restricted zones marked by warning buoys. Anchoring, fishing, or slowly operating boats in these areas could enable surveillance and reconnaissance that poses security risks.
While boaters may drift into such zones accidentally, staying once aware or intentionally approaching critical infrastructure prompts investigation. Fines, vessel seizure, and criminal charges are potential penalties, depending on circumstances.
Boaters have a duty to educate themselves on expanding homeland security measures affecting US waterways. While rules may seem stringent in some areas, most support public safety and national security.
By reviewing regulations in your local port, anchorage, or boating zone, you can ensure compliance. Confirm required permits for activities like operating near bridges, temporarily anchoring, or carrying additional passengers.
Report any suspicious maritime behavior promptly to the Coast Guard. But avoid confrontation to allow proper authorities to investigate. With sound preparation and prudent operation, recreational boaters and small vessels should have no conflicts with homeland security rules.