If you happen to be cruising in the San Juans this summer and get overhauled by a Coast Guard response boat manned by a guy wearing a felt Stetson with a leather band and a red serge tunic, you’re not in a time warp and there is no point in looking around for his faithful dog King … you’ve just encountered one of the new Shiprider joint US Coast Guard-Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) patrol boats.
Actually, you’re not likely to see the traditional Mountie uniform anywhere other than a museum or ceremonial parade these days … the modern uniforms look pretty much like police anywhere in the world. And the Shiprider program is not all that new, either; the two agencies have paired up several times in the past for special events or to test the concept of joint patrols, including during the recent 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
Integrated Cross-border Maritime Law Enforcement Operations (ICMLEO) between the Coast Guard and RCMP in the Pacific Northwest were finalized by an agreement signed last June at the Peace Arch Provincial Park at the border crossing between Blaine, Washington, and Surrey, British Columbia.
The US Coast Guard shares law-enforcement duties along the maritime border along with a veritable alphabet soup of other federal, state, and local agencies. Meanwhile, to the north, the RCMP handles law-enforcment for most of Canada at almost every level, both afloat and ashore.
The Canadian Coast Guard does not have a law-enforcement role. But the RCMP has a longer and finer nautical tradition than you might originally suspect; the schooner St. Roch (now on display at the excellent Vancouver Maritime Museum at the entrance to False Creek in Vancouver, BC) was the first vessel to navigate through the Northwest Passage going west to east and the first to make it entirely through the Passage in a single season, both feats accomplished on official patrol duties with an RCMP crew.
But it’s not just a matter of putting Mounties on Coast Guard vessels: the program goes cross-border in both directions, putting USCG officers on board RCMP patrol boats in Canadian waters as well.
The program is designed to un-blur the lines for law enforcement along a porous international border. Having law enforcement authorities on board a single craft with jurisdiction on both sides of the line provides more flexibility to both agencies, and fewer hoops to jump through when violators are spotted on either side of the international boundary.
All of the officers participating in the program are cross-trained by their counterpart agency in specific national enforcement procedures before they are allowed to patrol.
For boaters, the program does not represent any particular new challenges. You are required to comply with instructions coming from USCG vessels in Canadian waters, and with RCMP vessels in US waters. But, as has always been the case, boaters are only expected to comply with Canadian laws and regulations in Canadian waters, and with US laws and regulations in US waters. And the standards for professionalism within both participating agencies are high, as can be seen in this video of a Shiprider boarding that happened near Blaine late last year.
But if you’re breaking the law on either side of the line and think you can escape by darting across the border quickly, think again!