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
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
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
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
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
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
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.