Coastguard spot checks: everything you need to know

Don't worry about encountering the coastguard at sea — our comprehensive guide will tell you everything you need to know.

Coastguards play an important role in ensuring the safety and security of ships and their crews. While they are considered friends to those who sail the seas, a surprise inspection can cause stress for captains who are unsure of what to expect. To help alleviate concerns, we have compiled information on everything you need to know about coastguard inspections. Learn about the how, when, where, why, and what to expect during an inspection so that you can be prepared and ensure smooth sailing.

How often do coastguard checks occur?

Even though it's the coastguard's responsibility to carry out regular inspections, boat captains report that these inspections are a rare occurrence. Those who spend a lot of time boating in a particular area estimate that they happen only once or twice in a year. We've talked to professional skippers who agree that coastguard inspections are a random and occasional thing. Most of them have only experienced it a few times in their entire career. For recreational boaters, encountering an inspection once or twice in their lifetime is the norm. In essence, then, such inspections can be seen as rare.

Powers of the coastguard

The coastguard is not the police or the military. It has certain powers, but they are not limitless. So, what can and can't the coastguard do?

  • The coastguard can board the captain's boat.
  • They can ask to see personal documents and documents from the boat.
  • For non-compliance with the rules, the coastguard can impose a penalty or require the boat to return to port for repairs or to replace any missing equipment, etc. But sometimes you just get a written notification outlining the necessary measures to be taken.
  • The inspection does not have to be for a reason; most inspections are random, spot checks and it is not assumed that the inspected person has acted unlawfully
  • The coastguard may subject the captain to an alcohol test.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Keep in mind that the coastguard is not here to make your life miserable. They are just doing their job and are very often nice, courteous and prompt. They don't want to inconvenience themselves or you, they just follow protocol.

Where do spot checks take place?

The coastguard typically inspects ships when they are entering a port, crossing a national border, or passing through strategic locations along the coast. However, it is possible to receive an inspection while anchored in a bay if there is suspicion of a rule violation.

YACHTING.COM TIP: If you are sailing in Croatia, you will often encounter coastguard checks in the area of Cavtat, Dubrovnik. A lot of skippers here have paid fines, especially because they inadvertently crossed the Croatian border with Montenegro, which is very close. Also spot checks are more frequent around the Croatian island of Palagruža. Here, the focus is mainly on smuggling alcohol, cigarettes or drugs into Italy.  

How is the inspection carried out?

We've listed some of the actions that happen before, during, or after a coastguard inspection.

Step 1: Request to stop

Forget about action movie scenes portraying the coastguard's ship pursuing another boat while frantically calling out its name through the tannoy. In reality, the coastguard's call to stop and check is usually conducted calmly. Typically, the guard will announce the call through the radio, and if ignored, they will send a smaller boat directly to you. Alternatively, the coastguard may appear behind you and signal with a blue light or siren to signal you to stop.

coast guard ship

This is what a Coast Guard ship can look like.

Step 2: Stop the boat

Whichever way you are told to stop, you must stop. This is where a lot of novice skippers make the mistake of getting confused. Look carefully around you, find a place where the waterway is not busy and stop there. If the guard is coming to you in a boat, make a conventional approach to the boat, of course don't forget to put up the fenders. You also have the option to drop anchor if the seabed allows it.

Step 3: Respect

Treat the coastguard with respect and deference from the start. Under no circumstances swear, be unnecessarily unpleasant or arrogant.

Step 4: All aboard

Assemble all crew members on deck in one visible location. It doesn't look good when, during the check, there is one person in the cabin, another in the toilet, two on the bow and the coastguard has to chase them all over the boat to even count or identify them.

Step 5: Check

Submit to the inspection, show the necessary documents, do not hide anything. The check will go smoothly and as quickly as possible so you can sail on. Under no circumstances prevent the inspectors from entering the boat or inspecting parts of the boat and its equipment.

Step 6: Corrective action (if necessary)

If a defect has been identified on your vessel that needs to be corrected, do so immediately. Most often this is a missing lifesaving, safety or signalling equipment. We recommend that you sail to the nearest marina immediately after the inspection to replenish or repair it. The coastguard keeps a record of the offences and if you were to be caught again for the same offence, it would be an aggravating circumstance and you would probably not avoid a penalty.

Length of the coastguard inspection

It depends on the circumstances as to how long such a spot check takes. Most often, the inspection time is between fifteen and thirty minutes. However, if you have everything prepared (all crew on board, documents ready, etc.), you can shorten the length of the inspection and make it much easier.

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How to recognize the coastguard

Unfortunately, we don't have an answer to that. Near the coast, the coastguard may come in an inflatable rubber dinghy, further offshore it might be a boat that looks like a fishing boat approaching you. Sometimes it's a combination of both (a large boat with a small boat). In addition, in each country the coastguard looks a little different. So boaters have no real choice but to trust their call to stop and check. Usually the officers in question are in uniform, often in bright orange. But this also varies from country to country.


Coast Guard uniforms often contain orange.

What does the coastguard check?

The coastguard targets illegal, prohibited or otherwise threatening items and goods. This means that the first thing they check for is weapons on board and if there are weapons, they want to see the appropriate paperwork for them. Next, they look for drugs and other addictive substances or large quantities of alcohol for illegal smuggling. The check may also concern safety features (correct number of life jackets and life rafts for category B and above), signalling devices (mandatory pyrotechnics) and radios.

Regarding persons, the guard will be interested in who all is on board, their documents and crew list. They will therefore check the entire crew. The guard is often also interested in if alcohol has been consumed at the helm. Just like the police, they conduct breathalyser tests to detect the presence of alcohol on the skipper. What may surprise you is the checking of waste and toilets. If you are sailing in an area where it is forbidden to discharge a waste tank into the sea, such as Turkey, the guard may check to see if you have the waste tap open to the water.

YACHTING.COM TIP: The coastguard can also check the number or functionality of safety equipment. All of this should have been checked by the skipper when taking over the boat. Take a look at Charter boat check-in: a step-by-step guide to find out what to look for and what not to forget.

Coast Guard helicopter

Forget the idea that the coastguard will take such drastic action on your vessel. In reality, inspections are typically mundane, involving the verification of documents and equipment.

Documents to check

Which documents do I need to have ready for inspection? The guard may not want to see them all, but it helps to have them ready, ideally at the captain's table. The most commonly checked are:

  • Documents from the boat, supplied by the charter company (about the vessel's insurance, etc.)
  • Confirmation of registration in another country when crossing borders (for more on sailing into foreign waters, see Can you cross national borders with a charter boat?)
  • Captain's personal documents (passport, ID card)
  • Captain's licence
  • Radio licence
  • Crew travel documents
  • Crew list

Locating the coastguard

Instead of waiting for the coastguard to come to you, in certain circumstances you can take the initiative to contact them yourself. This is particularly relevant if you plan to undertake a longer or more challenging journey, such as a solo voyage or an extended crossing. It is recommended that you contact the coastguard prior to embarking on such a trip, providing them with your sailing itinerary and instructions. In the event that you do not reach your intended destination, the coastguard will be aware of your whereabouts and able to take necessary action. In the UK, there is even an RYA app available for this purpose.

You'll only encounter a coastguard if you actually go sailing. Call me and I'll find a boat for you.

FAQs: All about coastguards checks