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Rules of the Road: USCG aims to curb illegal charters

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Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake DesVergers

In a recent action by the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami, the voyage of a 65-foot yacht was terminated after the vessel was found to be in violation of several federal regulations governing the operation of commercial passenger vessels. These violations included the carriage of more paying passengers than the yacht was certified to carry.

As a result of a serious incident earlier that day in which the yacht collided with a bridge, a concerned passenger contacted the U.S. Coast Guard. Fortunately, no one reported any injuries. A subsequent law enforcement boarding was initiated to investigate the situation.

The boarding team discovered four violations:

  • Operating a vessel without a valid Certificate of Inspection: 46 CFR 176.100(a)
  • Failure to have a credentialed mariner in command of the vessel: 46 CFR 15.515(b)
  • Failure to have a drug and alcohol program implemented: 46 CFR 16.201
  • Failure to have a valid stability letter issued to the vessel: 46 CFR 170.120

This case highlights the need for continued coordination among the U.S. Coast Guard, the charter yacht industry and local law enforcement. Illegal operations by individuals who are either unaware of or are attempting to avoid U.S. laws and U.S. Coast Guard regulations pose serious safety concerns to the public and the environment. Failure to comply with the rules governing operator credentialing requirements, vessel inspections, operational standards and safety equipment also adversely impact the livelihood of legitimate operators who do comply with federal requirements. In its press release on the incident, the U.S. Coast Guard emphasized its dedication to investigating these violations and taking the appropriate enforcement actions to ensure compliance and public safety.

Charter guests engaging in this type of operation are taking an unnecessary safety risk by sailing on a yacht without a credentialed mariner in charge. Or in some cases, they may be on board an uninspected vessel that needs to be inspected under federal regulations. The U.S. Coast Guard urges passengers to request to see the vessel operator’s valid credential and/or proof of any required inspection or examination before hiring any crewed charter vessel, water taxi or other type of waterborne transportation. This is to ensure the captain possesses a U.S. Coast Guard-issued Merchant Mariner’s Credential suitable for the vessel’s service.

Additionally, credentialed mariners who work for multiple vessel owners should be aware that if they accept employment from an illegal operation, they risk not only passenger safety, but also their own credential, livelihood and reputation. The U.S. Coast Guard strongly advises licensed mariners to avoid unlawful and dangerous situations such as:

  • Operating unqualified bareboat charters.
  • Operating a vessel without a valid Certificate of Inspection.
  • Operating a 6-Pack that does not meet Uninspected Passenger Vessel requirements.
  • Inadequate merchant mariner license endorsements for charter service/employment performed.
  • Violating a Captain of the Port Order.
  • Operating without adequate liability insurance.

Owners must comply with U.S. federal regulations governing the operation of commercial passenger vessels regardless of the mode customers use to reserve the vessel. In recent years, the introduction of smartphone apps offering vessel charter services have made it easier for owners to enter into agreements with paying customers. Although the circumstances leading to the illegal charter in Miami remain under investigation, the owner faces a potential maximum civil penalty amounting to $41,546 per day.  Criminal charges can also be assigned.

The U.S. Coast Guard continues to address potential illegal charters on a case-by-case basis. Recent operations targeting illegal passenger vessels across the country have shown the benefits of collaboration between marine safety personnel, Coast Guard Investigative Service special agents, boarding officers, local law enforcement and the marine industry. Charter services found to be operating illegally will continue to be subject to civil or criminal penalties. The U.S. Coast Guard has clearly publicized its commitment to commercial and recreational boating safety on the nation’s shared waterways. They encourage legitimate operators and passengers to report suspicious and unsafe activities.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (yachtbureau.org). Comments are welcome below.

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