Swimmers and surfers have become the Coast Guard’s latest nuisance.
Of particular concern are protestors who disrupt harbor operations by swimming into the path of vessels near ports, Coast Guard officials said.
Following a swimmers’ blockade at the Nawiliwili Harbor in Hawaii last summer, the service realized it needs better ways to handle protestors at U.S. ports.
In these situations, the Coast Guard, for example, would like to have modern law-enforcement tools such as lightweight sensors and nonlethal weapons that can easily be carried up a Jacob’s ladder, said Rear Adm. Thomas Atkin, commander of the Coast Guard’s deployable operations group.
“If you can imagine how difficult it is to get a protestor who is on land and move him out of the way, imagine how difficult it is if you have somebody swimming in the water in front of a large vessel,” said Atkin.
In Hawaii, Coast Guard units responded to a protest by environmentalist swimmers who were opposed to the new ferry service between Honolulu and Kauai. The small patrol boats that the Coast Guard initially deployed were ineffective because the protestors swam toward the propellers, prompting crews to cut off their engines.
As a result, Atkin said, the Coast Guard was “dead in the water.”
Later, the Coast Guard deployed rigid hull inflatable boats that it borrowed from the Marine Corps to move the protestors. The service needs more of these small watercraft, Atkin said.
The protest also exposed another vexing issue for the Coast Guard: how to handle private citizens such as protestors who swim in restricted areas. In Hawaii, Coast Guard operators leaned over the edge of the watercraft, grabbed the protestors and hauled them in.
“What types of nonlethal capability could we have used rather than hands on swimmers?” Atkin asked an industry audience at a recent conference.
Boarding teams have batons and pepper spray, but neither of those measures is effective in the water, he said.
The Coast Guard also must worry about human-rights violations when dealing with civilians. “How do we stop a small boat without hurting the crew? How do we make a system for the maritime environment useable from a small boat?” he said.
When a boarding team detains civilians, it would be helpful to be able to send the personal identification data of those individuals to authorities ashore, said Atkin. “They’re doing some of that today, but it’s hard. We don’t always have the bandwidth we need to send biometrics back to stateside to do a full check.”
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