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How Secure - 6/27/02

By Little Gidding - Published June 27, 2002 - Viewed 993 times

How Secure? June 27, 2002 

A warship at dock in Norfolk - don't get too close!

We left Norfolk at the south end of Chesapeake Bay, rounded Old Point Comfort and were slowly reaching north up the Bay in light southeast winds. Having successfully picked our way through the confusion of channel buoys in the harbour, we were just beginning to relax when a stern voice cut through the clutter on VHF radio channel 16. "All stations, all stations ... this is Coast Guard cutter Beluga with a marine safety broadcast ... the US Coast Guard is enforcing a Navy Vessel Protection zone around outbound navy vessels ... vessels within 500 yards of any US naval vessel underway to operate at the minimum speed required to safely maintain their course ... also, no vessels are allowed within 100 yards of any US naval vessel underway unless authorized by that US naval vessel ... deadly force may be used ... break ... this is Coast Guard cutter Beluga standing by on channels 16 and 13 ... out."

Deadly force! Until then, our main concern had been avoiding crab trap floats. Did we now have to dodge incoming torpedoes? "See any navy boats?" Eileen asked. "What kind would you like?" David replied. "There's a submarine off our port bow, some big warship dead astern, and a couple of smaller ones further away to starboard."

"Lets get the hell outta here!" we said in unison, and fired up the engine. There are literally miles of naval dockyards lining the Elizabeth River in Norfolk, giving this part of Chesapeake Bay the biggest concentration of warships on the US east coast - and we were smack dab in the middle of it all. We escaped unscathed, but were reminded how things have changed since the terrorist attacks of last September 11th.

We knew things were different in terms of security when we first arrived in Miami in mid-May, after being away from the States for a year and a half. We came through Government Cut and hadn't gone half a mile into the port of Miami before a high speed harbour patrol boat came roaring up to us, lights flashing and siren blaring. We cut the engine. The officer on board asked us if we had permission to be in the port. Dumbfounded, we explained that we intended to proceed through the port and turn off at the Venetian Causeway to anchor for the night. "The port's closed," he said. "It's now closed to recreational traffic whenever there are cruise ships at dock."

We've never been to Miami when there have NOT been cruise ships at dock, so we couldn't imagine when the port would ever be open under these new restrictions. The officer was sympathetic and explained how we could get to where we wanted to go by taking a detour around the far side of Dodge Island. He even radioed his colleagues to ensure the bridges we'd encounter were high enough to clear our mast. No big deal - we turned around, followed his directions and dropped the hook an hour later.

Within minutes of anchoring we took the dinghy ashore to phone US Customs and announce our arrival. The friendly voice on the line asked our names and nationalities and advised us to appear in person the next day at the Customs and Immigration offices in the port. "Right now they'll be getting ready to quit work for the day," he said, "so you might as well wait 'til tomorrow to do the paperwork." We were free to go ashore in the meantime. Eager to check out the sights and sounds of Miami Beach after four days at sea, we weren't about to criticize the effectiveness of the port's security measures. If we had been terrorists, our plans to sink a cruise ship would have been thwarted, but we had been given a full 24 hours during which time we could have smuggled any number of things ashore, including Osama bin Laden himself and perhaps a small nuclear device or two.

Just last week, when we were in Annapolis, we had another encounter with new security requirements. We anchored in the upper reaches of Spa Creek, less than a mile from the downtown docks, and rode our bikes to the Harbormaster's office, where there are public showers and a dedicated phone line for e-mail. David asked the man behind the desk if he could pay for a shower and an Internet connection. The man looked up and scowled. David looked like he needed a shower. "I have to see your boat's documentation," the man said.

David explained he didn't usually carry the boat papers with him, but he knew by memory our ship's registration number and cruising permit number. "Not good enough," the man replied. "Since September 11th, you have to show proof of boat ownership before using our facilities." David struggled to make the connection between terrorist attacks and public showers. Did they want to check his toiletries kit for any bombs? Eileen dragged him out of the office before the situation deteriorated any further.

Returning later that day with boat papers and passports, David encountered a new face at the harbormaster's desk. He repeated his earlier request. The young fellow smiled and handed over a couple of shower tokens before David could dig the documents out his bag. "That will be two dollars. Is there anything else I can help you with?" David shut his mouth. He knew better than to question this apparent breach in security policy while he was still unshowered. He enjoyed his shower - relieved that no al-Qaeda operatives appeared to be lurking about - and then revisited the office to have a chat with the deputy harbormaster.

Dermott Hickey chuckled when David asked him about what was required to take a shower in Annapolis. "We've always been required to keep a log of visiting boats, but have never had the authority to demand this information from visitors. Things have tightened up since the terrorist attacks. We now enforce the anchoring prohibition in front of the Naval Academy and we try to get transient boaters to register by making it a condition of them using our shore facilities." He explained, however, that they normally only ask to see your boat documents if you're intending to rent a city mooring for a week or longer. It's a means of verifying your vessel length (the moorings are assigned according to boat size).

Since then, we've used the facilities at the harbormaster's office without being asked for identification. Staff have been friendly and helpful. It seems that, for whatever reason, the employee we had the misfortune of dealing with first was pushing the limits of his authority. By merely mentioning September 11th, he effectively cut off any dissent regarding his arbitrary demands.

We don't want to trivialize the efforts being taken to confront terrorism, nor do we want to give the impression that we take the threat of terrorism lightly. The world has changed since September 11th. The aftermath of those tragic events in New York and Washington affects everyone, including cruisers. The price of enhanced security invariably is some loss of personal freedom. We only hope that any new restrictions are applied sensibly and fairly. Otherwise the perpetrators of terror will have succeeded where their bombs failed.

Cheers, David & Eileen

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