By Elliot Spagat
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Monday unveiled a prototype vessel for high-speed pursuits of smugglers ferrying people and drugs from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.
The 43-foot boat is faster, more stable and carries about twice as much fuel as CBP's current vessels, which were rolled out from 2001 to 2005.
The $875,000 prototype comes with infrared cameras and sensors that give detailed images as far as the horizon goes. Currently, agents often use goggles, which detect things only as far as the naked eye.
CBP hopes to get funding to replace its fleet of about 65 vessels for high-speed chases that are stationed in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida's Atlantic coast and in the Pacific Ocean near the borders with Canada and Mexico.
Authorities say heightened enforcement on land borders has fueled an increase in human smuggling by sea, particularly in the San Diego area from launching areas just south of Tijuana, Mexico.
The rickety smuggling vessels favored in San Diego generally can only hit speeds of about 20 mph, but they tend to travel at night far from shore and often elude capture.
"It's like looking for a can of soda in a gigantic pool," said CBP spokesman Juan Munoz Torres. "Sometimes you catch them, sometimes you don't."
Kayakers rested their paddles and turned their heads as the new boat zipped past them under cloudy skies at San Diego's Mission Bay, a summer vacation mecca where smugglers have been found to mix with fishing and pleasure boats.
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Powerful shock absorbers on the vessels can ease the bumps to passengers at speeds that reach 75 mph.