Boarded in Calibogue Sound for a PFD Infraction—Sort of

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PassageMaker's Editor-in-Chief kicks off his new blog........Yesterday's Hot News was about a stroke common sense that the Coast Guard has just had regarding lifejacket labeling. It reminded me of a time some years ago

, when I was was helping my friend, Joe Skorupa then the Boating and Outdoors Editor for Popular Mechanics, deliver a 26-foot walkaround fishing boat from Miami to Manhattan. The vessel was a project boat for the magazine, and Joe wanted to make the ICW run in it to support the idea that long coastal voyages were not just the purview of larger yachts that one sees heading north in the spring and south in the fall.

We were headed north in Calibogue Sound in South Carolina coastal waters, headed for Harbor Town on Hilton Head Island. About 20 minutes south of Harbor Town, we passed a small U.S. Coast Guard patrol vessel downbound for the Atlantic, or perhaps the Savannah River, and as they passed close by our port side, I gave them an acknowledging wave from the helm.

Almost immediately, they flipped on their blue light, accelerated in a hard turn to port and took a position in our wake. Not sure of their intentions, I nonetheless pulled the throttles back to neutral and allowed them to come alongside. Then announced their intent to board us for a safety inspection.

It was my responsibility to equip the boat with all the required safety gear, from PFDs to flares, and I had purchased the requisite items with great care, so I was not too worried that we would pass their inspection with flying colors. Still, I could not help but wonder what they might have seen that aroused their curiosity about our little fishing boat.

We stood in the aft port corner of the cockpit, overseen by a young Coast Guard crewmember armed with an AR-15 and a sidearm. Another CG crewmember thoroughly searched our cabin, and emerged with our rectangular bag containing four Type III PFDs. Since I had a Type IV throwable life-saving cushion in a storage area next to the helm, I thought we were in complete compliance. When he opened the bag, all four of the PFDs, currently referred to as life jackets, were still in their plastic bags, with pamphlets attached telling us the difference between a Type I, II, III, IV and V life saving device.

“You want to remove the plastic from these,” the CG crewmember said, “as it will make them easier to use if you need to put one on. You have two more than you need, but I can’t count the two Type V devices you have below because you’re not wearing them.”

He also explained that they had stopped us because our dealer boards, plastic boards with boat registration numbers on the front and paperwork on the back, were not permanently mounted. Indeed, we had traveled from Miami to Hilton Head with the number boards placed loosely in the side panels of the windshields that protected our helm deck. I told them we would find tie wraps at Harbor Town and display them from our bow rails going forward. He thanked us for our cooperation, made a passing reference to their ongoing drug interdiction efforts, and sent us on our way.

Honestly, even though I had thoroughly researched and equipped the boat prior to our departure from Miami, at the moment we were boarded, I had an awful feeling that I was missing something, that maybe I needed one or two more life jackets of a different type altogether. Phew! I for one will be glad when the Coast Guard establishes new PFD labels that, in plan English, makes their life-saving potential that much easier to interpret.

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