Small boats like the 23-foot Zodiac are deployed from larger U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
Three 300-horsepower outboard engines propel the Coast Guard patrol boat up and over ocean swells as its driver, or coxswain, maneuvers into position. Ahead of them is a high-performance speedboat known to the crew as a go-fast, the general term they apply to any fast-moving vessel. Once alongside, a crewman draws his Remington 870 shotgun from the gun mount near his seat. Holding its pistol grip, he runs the firearm’s action forward, then lifts the shell latch and loads four rounds.
The coxswain calls the target forward of the go-fast’s bow and directs the crewman to make ready and sight in. Immediately, the crewman raises the shotgun to his shoulder and his eyes, racks the action, chambering a round. He confirms he’s on target and tracking. At the command fire, the crewman presses the shotgun’s safety off and pulls the trigger. A single round exits the barrel and travels into the air with little recoil or sound. It travels above and forward of the go-fast unnoticed, then explodes in a violent burst of light and sound that sends a concussion through both boats.
Caught off-guard, now aware of and scared that weapons are trained on them, the suspects bring their boat’s throttles to neutral and raise their hands in surrender. Pacing close aboard, the Coast Guard slows and quickly maneuvers alongside, both hulls making contact as officers storm the deck with their weapons drawn.
Minutes before it was stopped, the go-fast, moving at top speed and covered with tarps to conceal the bales of cocaine on board, crossed an invisible line 12 nautical miles offshore and essentially entered the United States, where its crew and cargo became subject to the penalties of federal narcotics law. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was the first to spot the suspect vessel, finding it in spite of the dark ocean by employing a forward-looking infrared imager that detected heat from the boat and provided images with enough detail to identify specific indicators of smuggling. Acting on these observations, the helicopter’s pilot vectored a nearby patrol boat to the scene and watched as it accomplished the intercept and pulled into position behind the go-fast with a 180-degree turn at nearly 60 knots.
This is a scenario played out almost weekly in waters of the Florida Straits, Gulf of Mexico, Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest, where smugglers employ fast boats to import drugs, people and other illegal contraband into the U.S.