Viewpoint: Boarded and Belittled

On the first morning of our trip from Miami to Bimini we were “pulled over” by a speedboat full of heavily armed Customs and Border Protection agents. At the time, three friends and I were sailing away from the United States at a stately two-and-a-half knots and were still within 10 miles of Miami. These CBP folks were new to me, but from the look of their unsmiling faces, I had an idea what to expect. Sure enough, for no discernible reason—or at least none that they cared to share—the four of them spent the majority of their 15-odd minutes in our company yelling at us. Oh, and they rammed our boat.

This is the last thing we expected on our casual sail to the Bahamas

I was shaken awake soon after sunrise, just as I was starting to get my first deep sleep since arriving on board. Groggily I joined the crew on deck where I was immediately yelled at for taking so long, though it had been at most one minute. Moments later, and without any warning, two of the agents attempted to board our boat. Maybe they were worried we would call up a wind and whisk ourselves away. 

As fate would have it, their surprise boarding attempt was unsuccessful because they had placed their fenders far too high for our low freeboard. As the sharp V of their hull came abruptly alongside, it rode up on a small wave and the fenders rolled uselessly up onto our deck. Then their hull came down, landing on two of our starboard stanchions, pushing them violently inboard and ripping screws out of our caprail. Their response to this gross error was to yell at our helmsman.

In their second attempt they showed just as much machismo but maybe a wee bit less bravado, as they asked us to untie and lower our lifelines. Two officers came aboard, rather clumsily, for a cursory search. They then ran our passports and dodged questions about their names and badge numbers (we were given a phone number for their “supervisor”) before finally moving on to bother someone else. 

Is it any surprise that I found this encounter infuriating? It’s not so much the ignominy of being searched without provocation that bothered me. What really got me about this incident was the unprovoked disrespect the agents showed us, even after damaging our boat. In an unflattering comparison, I was reminded of the soldiers who held my family and me in a Cuban naval compound for two weeks during our 1995 circumnavigation of that nation. Though it was clear we did not have the option to refuse, these soldiers never failed to ask permission before coming aboard, and they always set down their rifles and removed their shoes before setting foot on our deck. It’s bad enough our country can’t display the same good manners as Cuba, but if you’re going to trample my Fourth Amendment rights, at least do it barefoot.

Fortunately, we still had sunshine, blue seas and a great crew. Soon enough we were all in the cockpit laughing about what these stern military types must have made of us. Our little ship, on loan from a good friend, was in a shabby state of disrepair, its lifelines hanging dejectedly from loose (now looser) stanchions and its deck pockmarked with cracks. What repairs had been made were executed with a flair for punk-rock style. Then there was Kyle. He’d been at the helm when CBP arrived and happened to look like a pastel pastiche of a Florida sportsman, clad in a bright pink hat and a gaudy parrot-patterned tank top. 

As for me, I was wearing the sarong I had been sleeping in, meaning I was basically wearing a skirt. Laughing and looking ahead to the two weeks of sailing ahead of us, I could almost forgive those poor bored saps for wanting to take a peek at our little boat full of weirdos. Almost, but not quite. Maybe if they had taken their shoes off. 

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