In a recent post, I promised to tell the whole story of how we were ticketed for violation of a non-existent rule. So here, as promised, is the story. (With apologies to Arlo Guthrie, who I’m possibly going to be loosely quoting from time to time).
Dark, early morning. Motor sounds. Spot lights. Armed men.
“Why isn’t your anchor light on top of your mast?”
Mind you, I’ve just woken up and pulled on some clothes. My brain is not fully engaged, my wit not the sharpest.
“Because it’s more visible where it is.”
“That’s not true.”
Ok, well actually it is true, for several very good reasons which I could – under other circumstances – happily explain. But my brain isn’t fully engaged yet, as I mentioned, and the officer of the Manatee County Sheriff’s department is very clearly enjoying his job just a little too much this morning. He’s got that “I’m a cop, so shut up” tone of voice perfectly tuned, and he’s clearly decided that we are the boat that needs to have the “twenty-seven 8″ by 10″ color glossy photographs with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one, to be used as evidence against us…”
Police officers are taught to intimidate – that’s part of the psychology that allows them to remain in control of difficult situations, and I understand that. The problem is that they are also human, and they make mistakes – and this officer has made one. But his ego isn’t going to let him admit it.
When it comes to anchor lights, the actual regulations are precisely vague. But if you just read them through without actually stopping to analyze their intent, you’re quite likely to misunderstand and misapply them, and that’s what’s happened here.
USCG Rule 30:
Anchored Vessels and Vessels Aground (a) A vessel at anchor shall exhibit where it can best be seen: (i) in the fore part, an all-round white light or one ball;
(b) A vessel of less than 50 meters in length may exhibit an all-round white light where it can best be seen instead of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this Rule
On a quick reading, you might think that “Where it can best be seen” would – logically – be the top of a sailboat’s mast. That’s what Officer Obie’s done. But you and he would be wrong. You might also conclude that that light has to be visible at any and every point around the boat, but you’d be wrong there too – just like Obie.
You see, the regulations are very specific in their vagueness. They actually go into defining exactly what is meant by “All-Around light’, and then – in a separate section, tell you how much of that light can be obscured by the structure of the boat, and how hard you actually need to work to get that light up there…
So back to our story. Officer Obie “found our name on an envelope” at the top of our mast, and in spite of the fact that there are 4 other boats anchored nearby which have no lights of any sort on them, he’s decided to ticket the one boat that’s not local – Sionna.
As it turns out, we’re an unusual transient boat, in that we really don’t have anywhere to be. Most out-of-town vessels probably decide that their schedule is more important than the $90 for a bogus ticket, so they just pay it. We on the other hand, decide that we’d like to have a chat with the judge. This may or may not be “…a case of typical American blind justice” – but we’d like to find out.
The actual citation we receive from Obie is pretty interesting, too. He’s written us up for “Mast light not at highest fixed pt.” , and has checked off statute (Florida law, not local) 327. Well ok, statute 327 simply says that the rules for lights and symbols on vessels shall follow US Coast Guard regulations – which is Rule 30, above.
Trouble is, nowhere in those regulations does the phrase “…highest fixed point…” appear. Nor do the regulations define or name a “Mast Light.” Strike two, Obie.
And finally, there’s the conversation. I figured out pretty early on that we weren’t getting anywhere with an intelligent discussion with Officer Obie – his ego already outweighed 14000-pound Sionna by a factor of two. I let him write his ticket, had a chat with his partner (the “Good Cop” part of the team for this stop), and went below as they motored off. Which is when the interesting conversation happened. Nicki, just poking her head up out of the aft cabin as they pulled away, overheard the partner questioning the stop, the rule, the ticket… And at each question, the response was a loud denial, a little more defensive each time. Partner thought they were wrong, lead was on the defensive.
Strike three for officer Obie.
Of course we can’t submit the conversation part to the judge, but we can use the citation and the actual regulations to show that we were, in fact, properly lighted and marked at the time of the stop. Whether the judge accepts that from a couple of northerners is a good question, but I hope for the best. We’ve submitted our defense by mail, because Florida only offers you one court date for such things. If you can’t make that date, you have to plead guilty UNLESS you can prove an unreasonable hardship. And being scheduled for eye surgery 1400 miles away on that court date was deemed sufficient hardship, allowing me to submit my defense in writing.
Nope, it’s not all Tiki bars and Umbrella drinks. We got out of Western Florida as fast as we could – and honestly, I don’t feel any great need to go back. Things in the Keys are more laid back, looser, and even with the ongoing hurricane recovery (or maybe because of it) people are a little sweeter, a little softer.
It’s a nice vibe.