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   Alan Lucas writes on .... . “Surveillance & the Cruising Sailor”


The great majority of Australia's recreational sailors live south of the tropics. Many (perhaps all) dream of one day heading north to Queensland with its coral reefs, islands and protected waters. Few, if any, have any idea of the level of beaurocratic suspicion they will arouse if that dream is ever turned into reality.

This suspicion can be at such an intense level that many visitors have been driven to distraction. I know also of a few international visitors who have described Queensland as “the most policed state in the world.” And I have to add that during my own stints at being an international sailor, I never drew anywhere near the attention that I attract at home. Not even in war-torn Aden.

In fairness, it must be added that there are those who shrug and say things like; “Oh well, I can understand that it is necessary to do these things.”

“These things” include constant overflights by Australian Customs Coast Watch, and the likelihood of being boarded anywhere at anytime by a state government officer of one department or another.

This absolute right to board a vessel is enjoyed by a bewildering number of departments whose motives are honourable enough, but whose “absolute right” is very questionable in some legal circles. As I understand it, at least two outraged citizens have gone to court over boarding's, and both lost.

Over the past years, I have been questioned by dozens of officers, both by VHF and personally, and must compliment most of them on their diplomacy and fundamental decency. They are, after all, only doing their job. But I nevertheless consider their intrusion to be unreasonable scrutiny of a private citizen's life. And this aspect of their job reached dizzying heights during the 1990's.

In those days, there was one particular officer who caused more waves up and down the coast than a tsunami. He once boarded our boat (without asking and whilst we were under way) and went straight below. It did not occur to him that someone might be down there changing, sleeping or simply presuming their right of privacy.

As it turned out, Patricia was making lunch, but was nevertheless startled out of her wits. “I want to see your safety equipment”, he said, then followed Patricia's finger into the forward cabin, again without considering anyone's right of privacy. Everything being in order, he gruffly returned to his runabout which, because we were boarded underway, was being hand-held alongside, by a puffing assistant.

The damage that officer did to relations between sailors and authorities was enormous. He was eventually promoted sideways (hopefully to Alice Springs), but his legacy lingers after many years. Those who were boarded by him still look with suspicion at all uniforms, and feel antagonistic towards their wearer's regardless of their manner. In a back-handed sort of way, I often feel very sorry for them.

But my criticism of excessive undemocratic suspicion remains. In scrutinizing those excesses, I am in no way condemning those decent, hard working officers who, as I've said, are only doing their jobs. But I certainly question those rule makers, insulated in their offices, who seem to forget that assumption of innocence is one of the biggest differences between a free society and one under dictatorship.

Northern Australia is under an umbrella of constant surveillance carried out by charter planes working for, and under, the colours of Australian Customs. It is a service known as Coast Watch, whose planes fly set sections of the coast on the lookout for illegal activities from drug running to people smuggling. Their brief is to question and photograph all vessels sighted.

Considering how attractive Australia's remote north must be to illegal traffickers, air coverage makes sense. But there are a number of questions that beg answers from the points of view of the huge majority of innocent sailors.

First and foremost, why is it necessary to call the same vessel on every flight (which can be a daily occurrence)? Are the observers so poorly trained that they cannot recognise yesterday's sightings?

If the answer is “yes” (because it may be difficult to recruit good boat-spotters), why can't they simply refer to the previous day's high resolution photographs? And, having done that, why can't they punch up details of a particular vessel and in this way avoid “monstering” it on a regular basis?

Secondly, why is so much attention directed at cruising yachts? Personally speaking, I Have yet to hear a fishing boat called up, nor any super yacht. Is it presumed that fishermen never deal in drugs and that the rich are too wealthy to bother?

If so, I have news for the rule makers. I have heard many a story of fishing boats collecting “packages” from offshore long-lines, directed there by radio beacons. And as for super yachts, Columbia's drug barons have been known to use such vessels in their filthy trade. Why not here?

This selectivity of targets raises the issue of selectivity of areas. As far as I can see, the Whitsunday area, with its hundreds of charter boats, and thousands of happy tourists, is never overflown. Why? Is it all too hard when the numbers are up? If so, doesn't that leave a wide open window of opportunity for illegal activities? Moreover, doesn't it make a farce of the whole business of Coast Watch?

As a matter of interest, I have done my best to ask this question directly to Australian Customs. I hit a brick wall. Such information is only available by special application through Freedom of Information, which, of course, costs both time and money. In other words F.O.I. works more as a barrier than it does a right of public access to government departments

I digress. A third question involves the barrier (with or without F.O.I.) that often

 exists between law abiding citizens and those who police the law. I was personally involved in a glaring example of this recently. It started one morning when I switched on my VHF whilst at anchor in Port Kennedy, Torres Straight.

Being such a narrow gap between Australia and her nearest foreign neighbour, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, the Torres Strait is a potential den of iniquity. Illegal drugs, people, pests, disease, you name it; this is where the route is shortest. It is very well policed by all interested departments. Or is it?

On the morning in question, I heard Graham Rowe of the yacht, Harmony88 calling customs on channel 16 with no response. It was in office hours, and the office was just two miles away. Knowing that he wanted to depart, I cut in and offered to help.

Graham had just been called (on HF radio) by his friends on the New Zealand yacht, Argonauta who reported sighting a large Indonesian fishing boat heading for the Torres Straight. Argonauta was a hundred-odd miles into the Gulf of Carpentaria when she made the sighting. Considering it to be suspect, she wanted her message to be relayed to Customs.

As Harmony 88 sailed off, I continued calling Customs for nearly half an hour, but could not get any response whatsoever. In despair, I caught a ferry across to the office and reported the matter personally.

The Customs officer was gracious, appreciative and apologetic, but he swore that his office had been manned for the past hour and that the VHF was on. That was when I learned that his radio was a hand held and hand helds are notoriously unreliable when the batteries are low.

On the ferry home, I pondered, not the efficiencies or otherwise of the local officers, because they were obviously hard working and under staffed. Instead, I wondered who in authority decided that a hand-held radio is good enough for a major Customs station?! This was the second time is as many years that I felt compassion rather than anger for our troops on the front line.

The first time was in Sydney in the year 2000. One night, long before dawn, I happened to notice a large motor cruiser making some sort of exchange with a runabout near Darling Harbour. The next morning I called Customs on its thirteen hundred number. I will spare the reader the dreary details of trying to get through, because they are all too familiar to anyone who has battled modern communications. But it took thirty five minutes for the receptionist to find anyone capable of handling a potential emergency, and then connected me to an officer on his mobile in the field somewhere.

After stoically absorbing my ill humour over the way I had been handled, he accepted my information with gratitude, and then went on to explain that he and his team were under enormous pressure. His team, he said, had just been slashed from around 150 to 50!

Is this our government's answer to rising crime, to slash its frontline forces then compensate by elevating the level of suspicion directed at the public at large?

Judging by the constant surveillance and unavailability of officers when you need them, it would certainly seem so.

The tragedy is that we, the cruising fraternity, are more than happy to act as unpaid frontline troops. All it takes is less harassment and greater trust. That Indonesian fishing boat sighting by Argonauta, for example, was reported in the press as a sighting by quote; “A routine Coast Watch flight”.

Almost certainly, Coast watch did discover another two illegal boats at the same time, one which sank whilst being towed in by a Customs patrol boat. The initial alert was, nevertheless, thanks to the cruising fraternity, not the authorities.

Bubbling in the background of Customs and air surveillance is a stew of state government officials popping up out of nowhere to periodically board small craft. In fact, actual boarding's have been noticeably on the decline, but being questioned by a group of officers bobbing alongside in a runabout or rigid-inflatable remains commonplace.

These officers represent such departments and corporations as Fisheries, Primary Industries, Water Police, National Parks & Wildlife, Great Barrier Marine Part Authority, and Queensland Transport. Mostly, they are looking for environmental violations, but nearly always ask to see your safety gear. This fact has brought many accusations that it is all a fund-raising exercise, but it is really just a mixture of them all. Checking safety gear is an opportunity to sight other potential violations.

There is an irony in all this where cruising boats are concerned because, by their very nature, they are the least likely too break rules on the road. Only a very small minority of owners are keen fishers, making them a low risk environmentally, and their safety gear tends to be up there with the best, with or without legislation. They are not all lambs, that's the truth, but the huge majority act strictly within the law, and are more than happy to assist in nailing those who do not.

The plea here is not that cruising yachts should enjoy special treatment, nor that environmental policing and air surveillance should stop. But in this day and age of instant communications, personal records access and high resolution cameras, why does it have to be so full-on?

Bob Hawke once talked of Australia becoming “the clever country”. In fact it has become the suspicious country. A land where the innocent are considered guilty until proven innocent. The dream of cruising is becoming a nightmare. Icy walls are going up between decent officers who are only doing their job, and decent members of the public who thought their right to privacy was inviolate.

It's time for some balance to return that inspires cooperation instead of division. When it is all said and done, only the criminals want it the other way.