The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prevents illegal searches and seizures, do not always apply to boating. Unlike regular police, the Coast Guard can search boat at any time for any reason if you are in American waters. If you are stopped by the Coast Guard, it is probably because they want to search you boat to make sure you have the required safety equipment like lifejackets for everyone aboard. According to USCG boarding policy: “Boardings are not necessarily based on suspicion that a violation already exists aboard the vessel. Their purpose is to prevent violations.”
I myself have been stopped by the Coast Guard two times and they performed a search to make sure I had all the equipment I needed. It was a very quick search and I was on my way. They often search boats in crowded areas on summer weekends to prevent Boating Under the Influence (BUI) and other safety violations.
For those of you who would not be thrilled with a government entity searching through all your belongings, I recommend that the you have the Coast Guard or an affiliate perform a vessel safety check. While not required, a safety check is like getting an inspection sticker for your car. A representative will come directly to your boat with you present and make sure you are complying with state and federal laws in terms of boat safety and equipment. After he or she is finished, you will be given a sticker valid for one year that shows you passed the safety check. You can place that sticker on the side of your boat. Now, the sticker is not going to guarantee that the Coast Guard won’t ever pull you over and inspect your boat, but may make it less likely.
Note: The vessel safety check sticker is NOT a substitute for a registration and registration sticker, which must be renewed annually or biannually, depending on your state.
So, next time you are out on the water, do not be surprised if you get pulled over. It does not mean you are necessarily doing anything wrong, but maritime authorities are trying to prevent something from going wrong.