6/25/2018: Recent law enforcement case highlights dangers of illegal passenger vessel charter operations

In November, we published a blog post on illegal passenger vessel operations and the risk they pose to public safety, credentialed mariners, and legitimate operators. In this post, we highlight a recent case in Miami as an example of the dangers associated with illegal charter operations and the importance of a coordinated effort between federal and local law enforcement authorities and the passenger vessel industry to combat the problem.

Recently, the Coast Guard in Miami terminated the voyage of a 65-foot yacht after the vessel was found to be in violation of several federal regulations governing the operation of commercial passenger vessels, including carrying more paying passengers than the vessel was certified to carry. A law enforcement boarding was done after the yacht collided with a bridge earlier that day and a concerned passenger called the Coast Guard. Fortunately, no one reported any injuries.

The four violations discovered were:

• Operating without a valid Certificate of Inspection – 46 C.F.R. 176.100(a)
• Failure to have a credentialed mariner in control – 46 C.F.R. 15.515(b)
• Failure to have a drug and alcohol program – 46 C.F.R. 16.201
• Failure to have a valid stability letter -46 C.F.R. 170.120

This case highlights the need for continued coordination between the Coast Guard, the passenger vessel industry, and local law enforcement. Illegal operations by individuals who are either unaware of or avoiding U.S. laws and Coast Guard regulations governing operator credentialing requirements, vessel inspections, operational standards, and safety equipment pose serious safety concerns to the public and the environment, but also adversely impact the livelihood of legitimate operators who do comply with federal requirements. The Coast Guard is dedicated to investigating these violations and taking the appropriate enforcement actions to ensure compliance and public safety.

Passengers are taking an unnecessary safety risk by riding on a vessel without a credentialed mariner in charge or an uninspected vessel that needs to be inspected under federal regulations. The 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, to ensure they possess a Coast Guard issued Merchant Mariner’s Credential suitable for the vessel’s service.

Credentialed mariners who work for multiple vessel owners/operators 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 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 and operators must comply with 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 are not yet clear, the owner/operator faces maximum civil penalties amounting to $41,546 for this illegal passenger for hire operation.

The 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 industry. Charter services found to be operating illegally will continue to be subject to civil or criminal penalties. The Coast Guard is committed to commercial and recreational boating safety on our shared waterways, but we need your help. Legitimate operators, credentialed mariners, and paying passengers are encouraged to raise awareness of this issue and report suspected illegal passenger vessel operations to the local Coast Guard unit.

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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