Can My Boat Host Dockside Catered Meetings With No Captain Aboard?

I would like to use my boat as a dockside platform for catered meetings — sort of a floating conference room. When I researched the legal requirements for the project, I ran across one of your articles from a few years ago. In that article, you noted that a “Boat and Breakfast” operation would under most circumstances require a licensed captain to remain aboard, even if the boat never left the dock (see, “Do Six-Pack Charter Rules Apply to a ‘Boat and Breakfast’ Operation?,” The Log, Sept. 18, 2009). Can you tell me where I can find the Coast Guard regulations that concern activities aboard a vessel that is tied to a dock with passengers? 
Legal analysis often requires reference to more than one place for a complete answer.  Coast Guard regulations are a good example of this process, so it may be helpful to walk through the analysis of our reader’s question regarding the operation of a vessel that remains tied to a dock.            

The various regulations and statutes that require a license for vessels carrying passengers for hire make no distinction as to whether the vessel is under way or not. They simply define the vessel without reference to what it may be doing at the time. As such, you won’t find a simple regulation that says “boats tied to docks with passengers need a licensed captain.”            

Instead, a boat owner must look to regulations concerning vessel manning requirements and the regulations that define a “vessel.” In this case, the analysis starts with the definition of “vessel” in the U.S. Code. Specifically, 1 U.S.C. §3 defines a “vessel” as “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” Simple enough, but this is where we need to start.            

Next, we look at what the vessel will be used for. In this case, our reader will have passengers for hire aboard the boat. We know that because 46 U.S.C. §2101(21) provides a long definition of “passenger,” which can be summarized as anyone who is aboard the boat except for the owner or owner’s representative, or the captain or the crew. And, 46 U.S.C. §2101(21a) defines “passenger for hire” as a passenger for whom payment to the owner is required as a condition for boarding the vessel. Our reader will be charging people to be aboard the floating conference room, so those people will qualify as passengers for hire.            

Before going further, we need to know a little more about our reader’s plans. How many passengers are expected to be aboard at one time?            

When read together, 46 U.S.C. sections 2101(22), 2101(35) and 3301 require comprehensive Coast Guard inspections of the vessel’s structural condition, fuel, electrical, fire and mechanical systems, safety equipment and other components, if the vessel will have more than six passengers aboard (or 12 passengers, if the vessel measures greater than 100 gross tons).            

Our reader is concerned about the cost of having a captain aboard during these events, so we will assume that she is on a budget and the events will stay below those passenger limits, and thus be exempt from Coast Guard inspection.            

This brings the operation within the definition of an “uninspected passenger vessel,” as set forth in 46 U.S.C. §2101(42). And you can see that none of these definitions say anything about the boat being under way or anchored or tied to a dock.            

Now that we know the type of vessel we are dealing with, we can look to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 46 Part 15, which concerns the manning of vessels. Drilling down further, 46 CFR §15.605 requires every uninspected passenger vessel to “be under the direction and control” of a Coast Guard-licensed captain.            

Notably, certain vessels that are permanently moored are exempt from licensing because they are deemed to be “removed from navigation.” These vessels are no longer capable of “transportation on the water” and, as such, they no longer fall within the definition of “vessel” as we discussed above. Removing a vessel from navigation requires more than just chaining a boat to a dock. Queen Mary, which is surrounded by a rock breakwater, is a good example of a vessel that has been removed from navigation.            

I hope we didn’t lose anyone with this detailed discussion. But it’s helpful to know how the Coast Guard and other regulators and attorneys read and interpret statutes and regulations to reach a conclusion. And, hopefully, it will help you to be a little patient when your attorney is unable to answer a question off the top of his or her head.

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