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Meet The Coasties Behind Your Boat Tour

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In a Louisiana swamp, your life vest better work.

Philly has duck boats. Massachusetts does whale watching. In the Florida Keys, you might go on a snorkeling trip. But here in Louisiana, we do it right with swamp tours.

Innocent enough. If you’re boarding a tour boat to search the bayou for alligators, it seems like your biggest danger is, well, the alligators. And as long as you stay in the boat, you should be fine, right?

At least that’s what I thought.

“Fire, flooding, malfunctioning equipment, structural issues within the boat, faulty life jackets…” Elton Morris, a Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) for the U.S. Coast Guard, quickly ran through a rather threatening list of potential hazards we could encounter when stepping off the dock.

Members of the Coast Guard inspecting a boat at a dock

But that’s his job: to see every potential for danger and negate it. I met with LTJG Elton Morris and Chief Warrant Officer Mark Senna on a sunny November day at a boat launch to walk through the steps of a Coast Guard inspection. As a mere civilian, I had no knowledge of what goes into that Coast Guard Certified sticker. What I did know was that thousands of tourists gladly take their lives in their hands every year when they lean over the sides of a tour boat to greet alligators (those gators, by the way, can reach 10 feet long and weigh over 500 lbs). So I arranged to meet two Coasties in person at Cajun Encounters, one of the largest, highest-traffic swamp tour companies in Louisiana, to see for myself how the Coast Guard ensures these boats are safe for the tens of thousands of tourists who look forward to seeing alligators, raccoons, and wild pigs by boat, in their natural habitat.

Enter Elton Morris, whose 12 years in the Coast Guard included an incident with a Liberian boat that was leaking toxic gas; and Mark Senna, who has served the Coast Guard for 16 years in Cape Cod, Boston, Puerto Rico, and now, the Louisiana Bayou.

Your boat captain knows them, even if you don't.

“People don’t really know what we do, since we work directly with businesses and industry.” Elton was ducking down to check out the life vests. But behind the scenes, these guys are one of the main reasons you can board a boat, bob out into a murky bayou whose toothy gators are waiting just out of sight, and know that you’re actually quite safe.

In fact, the Coast Guard inspects every single commercial vessel that seats 7 or more passengers, from the smallest swamp tour boat to thousand-foot container ships. And they do more than just check for life vests on that yearly inspection: they carefully examine life rings, check the structure itself for weaknesses, test out the equipment, and quiz boat captains to make sure they’re up to snuff. Sometimes the inspection even includes a man overboard drill (an exercise that is no doubt performed with dummies. I was still relieved, as the only person on board who had no real purpose being there, that today’s mock-inspection would include no such test of our captain’s abilities).

I noticed Elton examining one of the life jackets from every angle, brow furrowed. We’ve seen some companies try to fix their own life jackets, even sometimes filling them with cheaper material that makes them ineffective. He explained that to a trained eye, it’s easy to check for that sort of thing by pressing the life jacket and applying pressure to ensure it’s the correct filling.

They’re an ally to the tourism industry.

Members of the Coast Guard

One might assume that the Coast Guard and boat tour companies are at odds. Especially at a time when the general public seem increasingly wary of law enforcement, a tour operator may be less than thrilled at the idea of men in navy jumpsuits investigating every square inch of their boat, the means to their livelihood.

But Mark emphasized that the Coast Guard’s goal is not to impede industries or get boats off the water, but to help companies keep their passengers and employees safe. “Our number one goal is safety: to protect the families taking these tours, and the crew. This is their workspace.” Any issues that don’t put anyone in immediate danger earn a citation until the problem is corrected. And in a majority of cases, there’s nothing malicious going on: boaters and tour companies who receive a citation were often unaware of the problem, and simply want to find the best solution.

And rest assured, a Coastie performing a routine boat inspection will be armed only with a hammer (smaller than the one you got from Home Depot), a flashlight, and little else.

So what should you look for on your next boat tour?

Be aware of your surroundings. Look for the Coast Guard certified sticker, which should be displayed somewhere on the inside of the boat. And if you don’t see it, feel free to ask your boat captain if the boat has been Coast Guard inspected (if there are more than 6 paying passengers, it’s required by law). They’ll be able to show you the latest Certificate of Inspection,which is required to be on board.

And yes, this boat is up to code.

Pearl River Swamp Tours works closely with the Coast Guard to ensure all of their boats are inspected on a yearly basis.

No one thrown overboard. No holes in the bottom. Life vests are the right amount of squishi-ness. But do keep your hands and feet inside the ride, please. The Coast Guard can only do so much.

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