PWC Riders Detained After Buzzing Aircraft Carrier
By: Jack Innis | Monday, May 11, 2009 3:18:00 PMLast updated: Monday, May 11, 2009 3:18:00 PM
Operators entered 500-yard Navy Vessel Protection Zone.

Photo by: U.S. Navy photoStay Clear -- Recreational boaters gave USS Ronald Reagan a wide berth as the warship entered San Diego Harbor for the first time in 2004.
SAN DIEGO -- The Coast Guard detained three personal watercraft riders for more than an hour after they were said to be operating too close to a U.S. warship as it entered San Diego Harbor.

Crewmen aboard a 33-foot Coast Guard patrol boat providing security for the inbound aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan allegedly witnessed two men and a woman aboard PWCs racing at high speeds within 500 yards of the 1,092-foot nuclear-powered warship. Doing so is a violation of the Naval Vessel Protection Zone (NVPZ).

Coast Guard and other forces routinely provide maritime security to Navy vessels by establishing moving security zones around the ships as they move through harbors. Authority to create moving security zones was established by federal regulation 33 CFR 165.2010.

The regulation mandates that private vessels within 500 yards of any Navy vessel must operate at minimum speed and proceed as directed by the Coast Guard or the Navy. NVPZ violators are subject to civil and/or criminal penalties -- including the use of deadly force, when necessary for the safety and security of the naval vessel, according to the Coast Guard.

In this case, the crew of the 33-foot patrol boat tried several times, unsuccessfully, to hail the speeding watercraft. Shortly thereafter, the PWC riders came close to violating an even more serious buffer zone, according to Coast Guard Lt. Joshua Nelson.

“The PWC operators were operating at high speeds and came very close to entering the 100-yard buffer zone,” Nelson said. “You just can’t do that to a Navy aircraft carrier in transit. As you can imagine, it’s tough situation for our officers out there, because they’re trying to protect the security zone and naval assets.”

In most instances, as soon as the Coast Guard advises boaters of alleged NVPZ violations, offenders immediately slow down or leave the zone and the situation is quickly resolved. In this instance, rapid resolution was not forthcoming, according to Nelson.

“The patrol boat officer tried to communicate with them that they were within the zone, but the PWC riders either didn’t understand the communication or understand the rule and didn’t immediately leave,” Nelson said. The officer turned on the patrol boat’s emergency light bar and ordered the PWC riders to follow him to the Coast Guard station.

“We brought them alongside the Coast Guard pier at Harbor Island and checked identification,” Nelson said. “It took about an hour to run the names through law enforcement background checks to verify identifications and to make sure there are no outstanding warrants. Turns out they were not bad people -- just good people who didn’t understand the security zone.”

After checking the watercraft for required safety equipment, the patrol boat officer escorted the PWC operators to the Shelter Island Launch Ramp, so one of the riders could retrieve his identification out of his personal vehicle. All three riders received verbal information regarding NVPZ violations.

One aim of the Coast Guard’s NVPZ escort service is to protect Navy vessels against the threat of improvised explosive devices. Seventeen U.S. sailors aboard U.S.S. Cole were killed and 39 others were injured in Aden, Yemen by suicide boat bombers in Oct. 2000.

Cole was docked at port to take on supplies, when a small boat neared the vessel without first obtaining permission from Cole’s captain or another officer. The destroyer’s rules of engagement at the time, as dictated by the Pentagon, prohibited its guards from firing upon the vessel, even as they watched with machine guns in hand as it approached the destroyer’s port side. The boat was loaded with explosives.

The suicide blast blew a 40- by 40-foot hole at the Cole’s waterline. The destroyer did not sink, but was ferried on a semi-submersible salvage ship to Pascagoula, Miss., where it was repaired.
The attack was coordinated by Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization, al-Qaida.
One third of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet is home ported in San Diego Bay.