On Thursday late afternoon I was enjoying reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in my boat's while sitting in my boat's inner salon when suddenly three armed Nassau Harbor Patrol came alongside requesting permission to board Mystique. I asked the purpose of their appearance - "routine boat checks for firearms." I told them I had already been boarded and inspected twice before by the patrol since January 11th. That made no difference!
Dear Customs and Immigration,
My Leopard 40' catamaran anchored in the eastern end anchorage of Nassau harbor was boarded on Thursday March 23rd by three of your Nassau harbor patrolmen. Their boarding was the 3rd time my vessel has been boarded by the harbor police since my arrival in the Bahamas on January 22.
The leader of the trio asked me what I was doing in Nassau. I told them I was waiting for a family of 6 to arrive from Miami. They asked me about my relationship with this family and where they lived in Miami. I told them Gus and Isabel and their 4 children are my friends. I added that since January I had I had two other male friends fly into Nassau to sail on two separate occasions to Eleuthera /Spanish Wells and the Exumas and its marine park. When I offered to show them my email communication and my blog that describe these friendships, they rejected my offer.
As the second oldest officer reviewed my ship's documents from my two previous Customs and Immigration boardings and inspections, the leader, still aboard his motorboat, suddenly decides to step aboard my vessel and confront me. He tells me he "believes" I have been chartering illegally. I asked him for evidence and informed him his statement sounded more like an accusation. He denied accusing me. But then he reiterated "I belief you are an illegal charterer." My questioning his belief seemed to spark a stronger reaction.
I was tempted to ask them if they had any records of my vessel and my previous two searches. But I hesitated because I knew the answer: I When I checked into Customs and Immigration when I first arrived on Jan 22, I sat at a desk in their office amongst stacks of documents laying on the floor and atop nearby filing cabinets. As I filled-out their required documents and then paid $300 for a cruising permit, I could not help picture these documents being "filed" to the pile. Then the thought that my previous years documents were also somewherre in those mountain stacks. Won't it be strange if they somehow found each other in the reams of paper. Can anyone hear the rsoinding call for a computer? Of course, I did not observe anything resembling a laptop or desktop one the surrounding desks.
As I presented my ship papers, passport and documents from the two previous patrol boat boardings and inspections, the patrol officers repeatedly asked me if I had firearms or drugs onboard. I repeatedly told them "No. I asked them why they continued to repeat the same question. I felt I was cooperating fully with the three officers, but they seemingly did not want to believe me. By asking me over and over they believed I would somehow change my answer. ?????
The youngest officer then returned to his boat and brought aboard his semi-automatic firearm and told me they then would conduct a thorough search because they did not believe me. I told them I had nothing to hide and again reminded them my vessel had already been searched twice before. They asked me why I acted nervous? They seemingly could not comprehend that bringing firearms onboard to search for firearms was not somehow nerve-racking.
During their search the youngest of the officers who conducted the actual search discreetly asked me, out of earshot of his comrades, something about my being gay. I asked him immediately how my sexuality was relevant to his search. He immediately denied asking statement. I dropped the issue, but I knew what I heard and now suspected their routine search had more motive and agenda. I had challenged them and questioned their authority. Then it became obvious they were now searching for anything to prove their suspicions - hidden charterers? Haitians? Cubans? guns? drugs? toilet paper?
For close to an hour they had me open almost every cabinet, closet and hatch locker onboard my boat. They had me remove or empty or uncover the contents of many of these compartments. Then not only did they not help restore various items to their original state, they left my vessel in a shambles.
Also, not so obvious to them was that I was left deeply shaken and disturbed by their intrusion into my home. I felt their presence and search was totally unjustified and unnecessary. Their search had been conducted without any due cause, evidence, history or provocation. And, of course, they found nothing that confirmed their beliefs; I had done nothing illegal.
I did volunteer that I had been sailing to the islands for the last four seasons. Never once was I boarded and inspected and never was I asked my occupation or my sailing history in the Bahamas. Never was there any indications that they recognized my boat or my background. My history in Bahmaina waters was basically an unknown. (unless someone looked through the stack!)
If "routine" is proclaiming a belief of guilt without any proof, bringing a firearm without any provocation, then thoroughly searching a twice-searched vessel, leaving a boat disheveled, making personal judgements about my boat's condition and my lifestyle is crossing the line of respectable conduct. Any authority which uses "routine" intimidation and disrespectful investigation to assert its power and influence loses sight of prudent and professional policing.
Their innuendo and dismantling my boat after I provided evidence my boat had been inspected twice before by harbor officers without any suspicious find seemed totally unnecessary and bordering on harassment.
Their final parting gesture to pull down my boat's sun awnings without returning them to their former position was a blatant, belligerent and contemptible act unbecoming any human being, much less an officer of law enforcement.
THey did not offer one single apology for their mistaken belief, not one effort to restore my belongings to their former place, not one sign or gesture of contrition. Their behavior was like the bully who no longer had any target to pick on; turning away as disappointed they didn't find something. These uniformed men may look imposing but they were totally unprofessional.
The Bahamian people deserve a more polite, less aggressive and authoritarian police force who need not flaunt their power to law-abiding foreigners. Maybe having a record of a boat's history and a profile of its owner or skipper before they conduct a search would help them welcome visitors rather than threaten them with a show of force and repeated searches.
These patrolmen came onboard my vessel not only with a gun but with an attitude and agenda. They may have had some previous frustration or resentment or some need to wield their power or prove their superiority. The whole experience left me feeling intimidated. My civil rights as an American citizen and a guest in their country had been violated.
I have sailed here 4 straight years from the US and never have I felt such disrespect and accusation as I did yesterday. By the way, their search found nothing illegal or improper. As a retired ex-school teacher and educator, I was appalled at the entitlement and unnecessary use of position to assert their message. Without probable cause or any suspicious evidence, I would think a judicious way of investigating might be to have a reason for turning a boat inside out...and sending a forceful message that they are doing their duty not randomly, but by due cause. I did not sail to the Bahamas to be intimidated.
They wasted an hour of my life and theirs when they could have been conduct a more professional and purposeful manner or better yet confront those susspicious boaters who are breaking the law. Would it not have been better to act on some reliable tip about some illegal activity than to re-search a boat and interrogate a law abiding boat owner for a third time?
Their parting words were "we could search you again at any time." Warning words that don't warm or engender any good will. An apology wwould have been an admission they were wrong but would have earned them some respect. I would think the harbor patrol would want to show appreciation for honest and law-abiding sailors and boaters for traveling into your country for $300. We are visitors, not suspects!
I am writing to complain about their behavior, lack of respect and professionalism. I am posting this on my blog that it will somehow find its way to those people who can affect change. I hesitated to present it to Customs and Immigration in person as I envisioned it ending up in a pile on the floor.
When will our world realize that how we live life is how we leave it? Those waterway officials toting guns didn't engender any goodwill or any semblance of security. Quite the contrary. Their display only showed they can't discriminate between crook and honest citizen. They don't yet know enough how to disseminate between good will and intentions. Of course, it would help if they had the floor information to work from. None of this would probably have happened if they had some history.