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October 17, 2003

Coast Guard Changes Policy: WON’T LIMIT DEAF BOATERS

From: The Log - Oct 17, 2003

By Jack Innis

The Coast Guard announced Oct. 14 that it will no longer terminate voyages of boaters solely because of hearing impairment.

The national policy change came from Washington, D.C., following an incident in which Steve Turner, a 52-year-old boater from San Diego, Calif., had a voyage terminated because he is deaf.

In hindsight, that course of action was incorrect, a high-ranking Coast Guard official said.

“In the case of Mr. Steve Turner, the Coast Guard erred in terminating Mr. Turner’s voyage as manifestly unsafe,” according to an e-mail sent by Rear Admiral Jeffery J. Hathaway, director of policy in Washington, D.C., to Coast Guard San Diego.

The rear admiral also announced sweeping changes in the way the agency deals with disabled boaters.

The incident began unfolding on Sept. 9, when a Coast Guard patrol boat approached Turner in San Diego Bay after he failed to respond to a VHF radio hail.

Turner was returning from a fishing trip aboard his 23-foot vessel Flying Fingers with three other deaf passengers and was approaching a cruise ship leaving San Diego Bay. When Turner failed to answer the radio hail, a patrol boat escorting the cruise liner intercepted Flying Fingers.

When the boarding officer realized Turner was deaf, he declared the voyage inherently hazardous - manifestly unsafe in Coast Guard parlance - and escorted him to shore where he issued a citation to Turner for inability to follow navigation rules.

Accounts of that incident were published in the Sept. 19 and Oct. 3 editions of The Log.

In response to possible terrorist threats following 9/11, the Coast Guard has established security zones that prohibit vessels from operating within 100 yards of cruise ships. The agency has never contended Turner violated the ship’s buffer zone.

Input Requested

The initial radio contact and ensuing interception were part of a routine attempt to remind the boater to keep clear, according to area spokesperson Jamie Devitt-Chacon.

In the weeks following the Sept. 9 encounter, local officials claimed Turner’s voyage was properly terminated under Navigation Rule 5, which states in part, “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing.” Other rules dictate that Rule 5 is to be followed regardless of ambient conditions.

Although local officials decided not to take further action on the citation, such as imposing a fine, they agreed to meet with Turner Oct. 14 to discuss the deaf boater’s concerns about his ability to boat safely.

Prior to that meeting, Commander Coast Guard Activities San Diego Capt. John Long requested input from district and national headquarters regarding interpretation of the navigation rules as they apply to deaf boaters.

The answer came in an abrupt about face in the way the agency deals with deaf boaters.

“It is well-settled that disabled people should be given an equal opportunity to obtain the same results in their life activities as non-disabled people,” said Hathaway. “Accordingly, deafness alone shall not be a bar to getting a recreation vessel underway and operating it, and the Coast Guard will not normally engage in prior restraint of deaf recreational boaters.”

In addition to the immediate policy change, the agency vowed to make internal efforts to educate its law- enforcement officers regarding encounters with deaf boaters, Hathaway said.

The Coast Guard will also begin conducting outreach programs with the deaf recreational boating community as well as other disabled individuals, he said.

Turner, by the way, is current president of the Southern California Deaf Anglers Club. The 80-member organization was founded in 1973.

Warning Also Issued

But the rear admiral also issued a warning: “It is the responsibility of all boaters, including hearing-impaired boaters, to comply with these and other applicable safety regulations. Likewise, all boaters must have the capability to perceive signals from law-enforcement vessels, particularly signals to stop and comply with lawful orders.”

Prior to receiving the Coast Guard’s blessings, Turner engaged in a little civil disobedience.

On Sept. 30, the 27-year boater-fisherman embarked upon an overnight fishing expedition with an all-deaf crew - and informed local officials in advance of his intention to do so.

While local officials assured Turner they had no intentions of actively seeking out and stopping the expedition, they refused to condone it.

“With respect to your proposed trip on Flying Fingers, I cannot grant you ‘temporary immunity,’ ” Long said at the time via e-mail. “The Navigation Rules are Federal law. Should you decide to sail in knowing violation of that law, then you assume the risk and liability for doing so. I will continue to push for quick resolution and keep you apprised of progress.”

Turner’s voyage went off without a hitch.

Finding the tide turned in his favor, Turner met with Coast Guard officials in San Diego Oct. 14 to receive assurances he would be allowed to continue to navigate his vessel without a hearing person aboard.

Aided by an interpreter, Turner described the meeting as informational.

“We discussed issues like the [cruise ship] buffer zone, horn, VHF radio, and distress equipment. They asked how I would handle fog and emergency situations. They re-emphasized requirements when a Navy ship is operating nearby,” he responded.

Turner is elated with the Washington, D.C. ruling.

“The bottom line is that they will not single me out and prevent me from sailing my beloved Flying Fingers.”

© 2003 The Log, California's Boating Newspaper