By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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Air and Marine agents from Customs and Border Protection can board private boats at will in American waters, including lakes and rivers.
For those agents based in Port Angeles, the Strait of Juan de Fuca is their byway.
“Our authority is to board any boat by all means necessary with reasonable force to stop a boat,” Marine Interdiction Agent Adam Connerton said.
When Air and Marine agents stop boats, they are looking for identifications — and anomalies, Connerton said.
“We are checking to make sure they are legitimately doing what they say they are doing,” Connerton said.
“Little things cue you to that.”
Gut feeling has a lot to do with it, said Agent Jeff P., who did not want his last name used for security reasons to protect his family.
Toward the end of a two-hour patrol in the Strait last week, the Interceptor-class vessel pulled port side behind a recreational fishing boat piloted by a lone fisherman.
“He looks like your average fisherman, but sometimes it doesn't hurt to say hi and get a vibe,” Jeff P. said as Connerton pulled closer.
Connerton had seen the fisherman round Ediz Hook on his way into the Strait, then watched him stop and drop a downrigger.
The boater stopped as the Interceptor lingered several yards away.
“I don't see any reason to stop him, based on that,” Connerton said.
“Jeff, do you see anything?”
Jeff said no.
“We don't want to be out here bugging fishermen,” Connerton said. “It doesn't make any sense.”
Jeff P. put it another way.
“The last thing you want is to have the public perception that we are a water-Nazi type of guy, when it's not our job,” he said.
“Our job is to catch terrorists or illegal merchandise or narcotics and stuff coming across the border.
“I do not want to hassle my mother and father and uncles and family. You know, they are just out here fishing.
“They have a right to recreation. I don't think headquarters out there wants us to do that. You get a vibe they are out fishing, and I'm on my way.”
Connerton positioned the craft to about 15 feet off the port side of the fleeing craft.
Like a rock skipping over water, his vessel hydroplaned at 40 mph off softly rolling Strait of Juan de Fuca waves.
Connerton, the vessel commander, steered back and forth over the boat's wake, allowing him and Marine Interdiction Agents Jon Michienzi and Jeff P. to observe what and who was in the boat.
It was time to get out the shotgun.
“You'd be shooting right out that door at them engines,” Jeff P. said.
“You get right up on it, just unload the shotgun right into the engine.”
The Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine agents, stationed in Port Angeles, took a Peninsula Daily News reporter and photographer on a two-hour patrol ride-along last week along the 70 nautical miles of U.S.-Canadian border they patrol.
The chase demonstration, in which one Air and Marine Interceptor-class vessel pursued another, mimicked what they went through during up to two years of training each received, depending on their experience.
They do the same thing during drills in the Strait.
Except during training, they shoot live rounds.
During the ride-along, the Strait was nearly bereft of boaters, making the excursion a typically slow-moving patrol, Jeff P. said.
That meant they didn't engage in their main interaction with the boating public: Boarding boats and checking for ID, getting a “vibe,” as Jeff P. called it, for what's up.
The agents still wore bulletproof vests and sidearms.
A shotgun was still propped up against the side of the cabin at the ready.
Jeff P., a Seattle native and firearms expert, insisted he not be photographed and his last name not used for this article.
“There are bad guys out there that want to know where you live,” he said.
“I got three beautiful daughters and wife and don't need weirdos.”
The station's main focus is seeking out terrorists and terroristic weapons, weapons of mass destruction, drug and merchandise smuggling and boaters' immigration status, Connerton said.
Bad guys have included Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam, whose capture had more than a little to do with Port Angeles becoming one of Customs and Border Patrol's 10 or 11 Air and Marine division stations along the nation's border, he said.
Ressam was on his way to bomb Los Angeles International Airport when he was nabbed in Port Angeles Dec. 14, 1999, by U.S. Customs inspectors shortly after driving off the Port Angeles-Victoria ferry, MV Coho.
“Because of Ressam, they pinpointed this area as a threat for terrorists coming through,” Connerton said.
The main tool of their trade is the Interceptor-class vessel.
Docked in one of four slips that CBP leases at the Port of Port Angeles' Boat Haven, the 38-foot version of the Interceptor plied the Strait last week.
It's called a Secure-Around-Flotation-Equipped boat, and it's made to be unsinkable.
It sports four, 300-horsepower engines, each with its own throttle.
Activated in unison, they turn the craft into a 9-ton paramilitary speedboat capable of cruising at 60 mph.
A foam collar wrapped around the hull helps absorb the shock that's inevitable even on placid waters.
So do stationary seats that accordion slightly with every bounce, and seat arm-rests that curl up at the end for ready gripping while you sit tight.
Those grips came in handy.
As as though turning sharply on a motorcycle, Connerton plowed the boat to a white-knuckle angle that seemed to bring his passengers face-to-face with the sea.
“It's difficult to capsize,” Michienzi said reassuringly.
Still, the crew could be sitting in the Interceptor, relaxed, and minutes later be racing in the Strait with a Black Hawk helicopter from Border Patrol's Bellingham Air and Marine branch swooping behind for tactical support.
The Black Hawk served as the patrol's eyes last week, scouting far more area than the Interceptor's crew could.
Working in tandem, the air and marine assets of the CBP division make it the largest aviation and maritime law enforcement agency in the world.
The same group of five or six Port Angeles-based Air and Marine agents — including one woman — patrol the Strait regularly in maximum six-hour shifts, Connerton said.
(The Interceptor lacks a head, so sometimes they'll bring a portable potty.)
There are no ranks in the Air and Marine division, and marine interdiction agents do not wear insignia, Connerton said.
Their training includes earning a captain's license.
“It shows you are a professional mariner who understands the water and understands all navigational rules,” said Connerton, an Air and Marine station supervisor.
The agents also augment, with separate land patrols, a land-based Port Angeles Border Patrol staff that numbered 25 as of last August and also falls under CBP's purview.
That can happen if inclement weather grounds Air and Marine, Connerton said.
“If we don't [go out], we patrol on land,” Connerton said.
“Everything is pretty much in conjunction with the water along the Strait.”
Connerton said he's aware of the antipathy of some in Clallam and Jefferson counties toward stepped-up Customs and Border Protection activities in recent years, including an ongoing project to build a $5.7 million, 50-agent-capacity Border Patrol station in Port Angeles.
His division, located at the Port of Port Angeles' industrial park near William R. Fairchild International Airport, has patrolled the North Olympic Peninsula for less than three years, beginning with him, another supervisor and three new agents, while the Border Patrol staff increased more than sixfold from 2006 to 2010.
Customs and Border Protection has refused to release arrest statistics for the North Olympic Peninsula that might be a factor in justifying the increase.
Those issues are of little concern to Connerton.
“I just do my job, and do it professionally, and all the other political stuff just rolls off,” he said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.