In the Halifax River, a Coast Guard boat pulled up alongside a large fishing vessel, performing what looked like a highway traffic stop but on water.
Lt. Israel Parker and Petty Officer 3rd Class Sam Buskirk then went through a litany of checks with the captain, asking about safety equipment and examining licenses.
The guardsmen were taking part in a much larger operation over Labor Day weekend that focused on stopping illegal charter boats. The campaign protects passengers “who are entrusting their lives to the boat operators,” said Parker, chief of investigations for the Coast Guard’s Jacksonville sector.
Whether piloting a small fishing boat, a pontoon boat or a yacht, captains who take paying passengers must hold certain licenses, Parker said. These licenses also determine the number of people that the boat can carry and, in some cases, ensures that the boat has been inspected by the Coast Guard.
“We just want to make sure that the people operating in the area are properly trained,” he said. “It’s the same as with a bus or truck driver.”
The crackdown on illegal charter boats comes after passengers have been injured, or even killed. Just this year, a passenger on a 91-foot yacht in Biscayne Bay was sucked into the boat’s propeller after the unlicensed captain put the boat in reverse while the passenger was swimming behind it.
The operation in the Jacksonville sector — part of a much wider campaign across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina — resulted in Coast Guard investigators boarding 49 vessels and conducting 27 site visits to check documentation, said spokesman Petty Officer 1st Class Luke Clayton. Nine violations were found, one voyage was terminated, and five charters were brought into compliance, Clayton said. The investigators also assisted with two Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigations.
“Here locally, I don’t know of too many issues,” Parker said of illegal charters. “But I know that down south in Miami and St. Petersburg, they’ve had pretty big cases there that have resulted in loss of life. So the Coast Guard is trying to up its efforts to identify and eliminate these illegal type operations.”
Illegal charters are not only dangerous but can economically hurt captains who are paying for the proper upkeep of their boats and licenses. The difficult part for customers is that it’s largely left to them to check on a captain’s license and the boat being chartered, which can be even more difficult now that many boats are booked through websites.
Lee Carver, captain of the Super Critter out of Ponce Inlet, said that his mates have told him about web ads for unlicensed fishing charters. He said that simply because someone owns a boat does not mean that he is qualified to bring paying passengers aboard.
“I can’t just call myself a captain,” he said. “I run a hundred passenger boat. We pay a lot of money for a blanket license, and small charter boats that are doing it by the book are doing the same thing. My boat has safety rules, annual inspections, federal permits. It’s quite involved to run a charter business and do it legally.”
It was a busy Saturday on the Halifax River as boaters took to the waterway under blue skies. During the morning, the Coast Guard boat patrolled a six-mile stretch, between Coast Guard Station Ponce de Leon and the Dunlawton Bridge.
The guardsmen stopped and boarded about half a dozen boats, from small recreational crafts to a 38-foot commercial vessel. Their inspections lasted anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes.
“Part of our mandate,” Parker said, “is to protect citizens but also to protect the maritime industry. We love the water, we love being out here. But we just want to make sure everyone is doing it safely and doing it the right way.”
Aside from the fact that illegal charters eat into the business of those captains who are properly licensed and inspected, they also put passengers at risk and can give charters a “bad name,” said Jimmy Hull, captain of Hull’s Sea Lover and owner of Hull’s Seafood Restaurant and Market in Ormond Beach.
“Someone on these illegal charters may have a bad experience or get hurt,” he said. “Nobody needs to be doing anything illegal when it involves the safety of other human beings. When you take people on a boat, you are responsible for their safety as master of that vessel.”
© 2018 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.
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