U.S. Border Patrol agent John Hodge at the helm of a 27-foot SAFE Boat run by the Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations division on patrol on Cobscook Bay. Both agents have had extensive training in small boat operations and are qualified as vessel commanders. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

Keeping a friendly border safe is serious business

EASTPORT — Even in this era of escalating tariffs and heated rhetoric, it’s hard to think of Canada as anything but a friendly neighbor.

That’s especially true in Maine where, for generations, people have crossed the border freely, sometimes several times a day, to commute between home and work or to visit with family.

Cross-border traffic moves a little more slowly than it used to — the trip over the bridge between Lubec and Campobello Island requires stops at border control stations at each end even for daily commuters — but the United States and Canada are still mostly friendly neighbors.

Even so, it’s the job of Customs and Border Protection agents to ensure that that no one, and nothing, crosses the international boundary that divides the two nations without proper authority.

Maine’s boundary with Canada stretches for some 611 miles. Alaska and Michigan are the only states to have longer borders with our northern neighbor.

Border Patrol agents John Hodge (left) and Randall Thomson check the readiness of a 25-foot SAFE boat inside the Eastport breakwater. The 27-footer (left), usually based at the CBP Calais Station, is faster, more stable and gives the agents the ability to work in rough weather and in the open waters of the Bay of Fundy.

Much of the boundary runs through remote sections of the Great North Woods and is pierced by only 24 legal border crossing points. The easternmost portions of the border, some 30 miles or so in length, extends from Calais near the mouth of the St. Croix River through the waters of the Passamaquoddy Bay and Cobscook Bay, invisible except as a line drawn on nautical charts.

Along that watery section of the boundary line, the job of keeping the border secure falls to agents from CBP’s Air and Marine Operations Division.

Last Wednesday, Border Patrol agents John Hodge and Randall Thomson spent the morning on board a 27-foot SAFE Boat, one of several small craft attached to the agency’s Houlton Sector, patrolling the boundary between Eastport and Quoddy Head. Farther inland, some of those vessels include canoes and small, flat-bottom boats able to navigate in shallow water — rivers and lakes — that form part of the border.

Besides its principal office, the Houlton Sector maintains Border Patrol stations in Calais, Fort Fairfield, Jackman, Rangeley and Van Buren.

The SAFE (Secure Around Flotation Equipped) Boat Hodge is piloting is clearly meant for big waters. Fabricated with an aluminum hull surrounded by a foam collar, the vessel provides the stability and buoyancy of a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RIB) that is rugged enough to stand up to its primary mission of “the pursuit and boarding of vessels” in “extreme weather conditions.”

The 27-footer (actually 33 feet long overall) certainly appears to be well equipped for its mission. With a pair of 250-horsepower Mercury outboards on the transom, the boat can cruise at 30 knots, and has a top speed well in excess of that. Inside the cabin, four shock-mounted seats provide secure accommodations for the crew — even in rough water.

Last Wednesday morning, except for a light haze that promised fog out in the Bay of Fundy, the weather was fair and traffic light as Hodge and Thomson cruised the boundary with Border Patrol Division Chief Dennis Harmon also onboard. Over the course of several hours, they encountered just a handful of boats hauling lobster gear, or on their way to or from port.

The lack of action is perfectly satisfactory to the three agents who, among them, have some 60 years of service in the Border Patrol. Hodge, a Tennessee native and the vessel commander, is the short-timer with just a dozen years in the service. Harmon grew up around Jackman, went to the University of Maine and joined the agency after college 26 years ago.

“It’s a great job,” he said. “You don’t regret going to work any day.”

Thomson, a Texan, joined the Border Patrol 22 years ago after serving in the Navy.

“I try not to hold that against him,” Hodge, ex-Army, said with a laugh.

Cruising smoothly at 30 knots with the shore of Canada’s Deer Island off the port side of the boat, Harmon said he and his fellow agents are generally content with the quiet maritime border around Cobscook Bay.

“It’s not about arrests,” he said. “It’s deterrence.”

Border Patrol agents recognize Maine-base fishing boats such as Family Tradition that work the waters of Cobscook Bay around Lubec on a regular basis but are more wary of strangers.

Unlike many areas, Hodge said, the area where he and his fellow agents patrol has a particular distinction.

Unlike some areas where most of the marine traffic is recreational or transient, he said, “Maine’s waterfront is a working waterfront. The agents get to know the boats and the captains.”

There is, of course, another side to that, Harmon said.

The CBP agents have to patrol a huge area of water — Cobscook and parts of Passamaquoddy bays — with busy lobster fishing industries on both sides of the border.

“That’s the threat we’re really dealing with,” he said. “Out here, every boat looks the same.”

Of course, the SAFE boats are distinctive and stand out from the rest of the marine traffic in the area. That’s not a problem, Harmon said.

“We don’t have any secrets,” he said. “We’re out here doing the job — it may sound cliché — protecting the United States. The more information we put out there, the better people can help us do our job

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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