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Mark Zuckerberg's Yacht Goes Dark - What Do Maritime Rules Say About AIS Tracking?

Zuckerberg turning off his AIS tracking isn't illegal, in fact it's common for yacht owners to 'go dark.' So what are the rules surrounding AIS?

A couple weeks ago, we reported the launch of the Zuckeryacht -- that being Mark Zuckerberg's impressive new superyacht Launchpad.

The Facebook founder managed to scoop up the $300 million superyacht, thus allowing him to skip the line at the dock and immediately go nautical.

The yacht was built by Feadship and carries a 387-foot LOA with over 5000 GT in volume, making it the largest boat ever built in The Netherlands.

Zuckerberg's ability to swoop in and buy the vessel when already complete (normally superyachts are commissioned years in advance) raised several questions among yacht enthusiasts. How can a yacht that's already built in The Netherlands, intended for a sanctioned foreign owner, be sold to a U.S. buyer? It turns out the deal was arranged with the help (and legal authority) of the Dutch government, so all is well. Upon completion of the deal, Launchpad immediately left The Netherlands and headed for Gibraltar.

After the Gibraltar sea trial, it was assumed Launchpad and her $30 million and 220-foot support vessel Wingman would head to the U.S. to link up with Zuckerberg, who has property in San Francisco and Hawaii, among others.

And they did, when his fleet turned up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and docked next to Jeff Bezos' mammoth Koru sailing yacht.

This is where it appears the tech tycoons adopted the same stealthy protocol. Bezos 'went dark,' as they say in the nautical parlance. Now Zuckerberg has done the same.

So what happens now?

Assuming we're interested in maritime rules (which we are), and not pop culture fandom (which we're not), according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) AIS regulations state that any vessel over 500 GT must use its AIS tracker during an "international voyage." Suffice to say, the Zuckerboat certainly qualifies at over 10x that size, and one would think a jaunt into the Caribbean qualifies as an international voyage. Bezos' yacht Koru is 417 feet long and has three masts that are 230 feet high, so it's not exactly discrete, either.

What is AIS, you may be asking? It stands for Automatic Information System and it transmits a vessel's data in real-time so other vessels on the water can be aware of its location and heading. Boats equipped with AIS-enabled displays can see the positions of other AIS-equipped boats up to 46 nautical miles away, even if they are behind obstructions like an island that would normally block radar. The information supplied for each vessel can vary, but the data can include the boat’s size, draft, position, speed, direction, cargo, destination, and more.

Both of Zuckerberg's boats went dark in the Caribbean Sea as Launchpad was en route to Jamaica and support vessel Wingman was headed to Belize City.

But the important detail is that AIS information is public, and sites like MarineTrafic allow you to search up any AIS-enabled vessel to view its data.

At the moment, Launchpad appears to be docked in the Panama Canal. Wingman appears to be in the same place.

Does that mean their AIS trackers have been disabled? It's possible. It's common for owners seeking privacy to go dark, but it's not necessarily illegal and there are other considerations. The last location signal from Launchpad was sent two days ago.

But what are the repercussions for turning off your AIS? According to eSysman Superyachts in the video below, it can be illegal, but enforcement is muddy and there are some legitimate security concerns that make 'going dark' a reasonable, or even necessary, maneuver.

According to the IMO, "the regulation requires AIS to be fitted aboard all ships of 300 gross tonnage and upwards engaged on international voyages, cargo ships of 500 gross tonnage and upwards not engaged on international voyages and all passenger ships irrespective of size... Ships fitted with AIS shall maintain AIS in operation at all times except where international agreements, rules or standards provide for the protection of navigational information."

The U.S. Coast Guard has issued broad scale warnings to mariners who turn off their AIS. They've even been known to pursue penalties for AIS infractions by fining a vessel's owner. The fines aren't cheap, either. But, in most cases the targets are commercial vessels within their waters, especially fishing boats. The rules are muddier for recreational boats, even if they're as large, or larger, than commercial ships. There are entire case studies devoted to AIS cheaters.

So the answer is this: it depends on the jurisdiction, international waters complicate the issue, and private recreational vessels are rarely, if ever, the worst offenders. There are also things to consider with relation to personal security for owners and crew, not simply the need for privacy.

The rules are also more relaxed outside the U.S., too. Especially for high value owners.

Wherever you're headed Mr. Zuckerberg, we hope you enjoy your summer aboard the Zuckerfleet.

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We passed Launchpad and his toy boats in Bocas del Toro 4 days ago - he can go dark but not unnoticed

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