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Theft of Victoria Clipper IV demonstrates the need for stronger port security

Early yesterday morning, the newest high speed catamaran in the Clipper Navigation fleet, the Victoria Clipper IV, was stolen from its berth at Seattle’s Pier 69 by a registered sex offender who later told police he was trying to use the vessel to get to West Seattle. (Why he didn’t just walk or take the bus there is a presumably a question that police detectives have asked him or plan to ask him).

The theft was discovered by Clipper Navigation CEO Darrell Bryan, who happened to be in the company’s offices around the time the Clipper broke away from the dock and quickly realized that none of his captains were aboard piloting the vessel, as he recounted to the Seattle Times and the Victoria Times-Colonist.

Bryan alerted authorities and before long the Seattle Police Department and the Coast Guard were on the scene. After attempting to negotiate with the thief, , a SWAT team was able to board the Clipper IV and take Samuel K. McDonough into custody without further incident. He is currently being held in the King County Jail.

The theft of the Clipper IV is already a contender for the most bizarre story of the year. It’s not every day that an eight million dollar high speed passenger ferry is stolen. As Bryan wryly noted, it’s actually the first time in the nearly three decade history of the company that someone has taken one of its vessels.

But the incident is also a sobering reminder that we need stronger security measures in place to protect our ports, including the Port of Seattle.

Our two U.S. Senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, have been pretty vocal over the years about the need to bolster port security, and the rest of us would do well to listen when they are speaking on the subject.

While we don’t know all of the facts of this case yet, police allege that McDonough sneaked onto Clipper Navigation’s premises, got aboard the Clipper IV, entered the ship’s wheelhouse, and started its engines… all without being stopped. Supposedly, he slipped into the restricted area of Pier 69 by jumping the fence adjacent to the sales kiosk, which is not topped with barbed wire.

And then, after he was aboard, he was able to get into the wheelhouse, which was apparently not locked – though it should have been, according to Bryan:

The vessel isn’t locked because it’s in a secure perimeter, but the wheelhouse should have been locked, he said.

“There is a locking mechanism, and you have to have the code to get in,” he said.

“Tomorrow morning we will be going through everything. We’ll be looking at the lessons learned and what can we do to prevent this from happening for another 28 years.”

That “secure perimeter” evidently wasn’t very secure, since it was breached by a mentally troubled sex offender in the dark of night.

In the future, Clipper Navigation shouldn’t assume it is okay to leave its vessels unlocked simply because they are in berths that are behind fences and watched by surveillance cameras. Had the Clipper IV been locked, McDonough would not have been able to simply walk on board and make his way to the wheelhouse.

Had the wheelhouse been properly secured, McDonough would not have been able to get inside and access the ship’s controls.

Worse, the key to start the engines was apparently in the unlocked wheelhouse… and maybe even in the ignition. (Bryan told The Seattle Times a key is needed to start the Clipper IV. He did not confirm whether the key had been left in the wheelhouse, but we suspect that’s what might have happened).

Bryan told Seattle television stations that the company will move quickly to fix the fence by the sales kiosk so it can’t be jumped anymore. That’s a good idea, but an even better one would be a top-to-bottom review of security procedures. Tough questions need to be asked and answered.

For instance, how is it that McDonough was not noticed until he was maneuvering the Clipper IV away from the dock, ripping off cleats in the process? (Security cameras aren’t very useful if someone isn’t monitoring them).

And why had the wheelhouse been left unlocked?

Does the rationale for leaving the vessels accessible when not in use make sense any more, given what happened yesterday? If the vessel had been secured, it could have stopped McDonough from making it to the unlocked wheelhouse.

The Clipper IV is one of the world’s fastest watercraft. Built in Bergen, Norway, and registered in Nassau – presumably for tax purposes – it is powered by a waterjet propulsion system and can travel at speeds of up to thirty-five miles per hour. It provides convenient ferry service between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia.

The Clipper IV is a catamaran, meaning it has multiple hulls. It is said to be difficult to operate, and it can’t be started up just by turning a key.

McDonough apparently was clever enough to figure out Clipper Navigation’s equivalent of a preflight checklist and start up the ship. But he did not have the skill to drive it properly, and as a result it appeared as if the Clipper IV was adrift, going in circles. Authorities called McDonough’s short voyage a joyride.

I’ve ridden the Clipper before, and it is a very cool boat. It can traverse the waters between Seattle and Victoria very quickly. The crossing of the Strait of Juan de Fuca can be bumpy, but Puget Sound waters are reasonably calm most of the time.

Much attention has been paid in recent years to bolstering security procedures for air, rail, and marine passengers, to the point where (particularly in airports) we have security theater on a grand scale. It’s more for show than for effect.

Our approach to security has been far too reactive and not proactive enough. We respond to incidents to prevent repeats but we don’t think creatively to anticipate and prevent new incidents. We’ve spent billions to fortify the entrances to airport terminals, but even still, it’s been demonstrated that people can get through security with restricted items undetected. One fellow has even figured out how to build a gun out of items you can purchase after clearing airport security.

Clipper Navigation CEO Darrell Bryan might consider hiring the the equivalent of a hacker or team of hackers and seeing if they can penetrate the company’s defenses when most of the company’s workers are off-duty. Such an exercise could help the company better identify its vulnerabilities. A patched fence may stop the next Samuel K. McDonough, but what about someone who cuts through the fence, or approaches from the water in a kayak or rowboat?

Our ports are the gateways to our country and our continent for millions of people and for goods and materials made abroad. Their security ought to be of paramount importance, and it doesn’t seem like it is. When a multimillion dollar passenger ferry can be stolen from its dock by one man in the middle of the night despite being berthed in what’s considered a secure perimeter, it’s a sign that our port security is not robust enough. This is a serious problem we need to address, and soon.