SAN PEDRO— For more than 10 years, co-founder and executive director of City2Sea, John Sakacs, has introduced thousands of inner-city, science-crazed kids to marine environments through three hour-long sea voyages.
“We collect water samples, conduct water analysis and species identification,” said Sakacs of his Redondo Beach based non-profit organization. “We align those with the classroom work they need to master in order to graduate—just to keep it interesting for them.”
Since 2012, members of the Animo Leadership Charter High’s Marine Biology Club have been welcomed aboard the 62-foot vessel Streamliner, where Sakacs and volunteers host free science-based expeditions.
“This is like a cruising classroom with microscopes, LCD projectors, remote operated vehicles and underwater robotics that students build,” said Mark Friedman, the club’s advisor. “It’s a bona fide program that focuses on giving students hands-on outdoor science experience they wouldn’t normally get and that virtually no students, except very rich schools, can get.”
But in June of 2013, the teaching trips were shut down when the Coast Guard determined the organization was in violation of a passenger for hire rule, a decree Sakacs says was enforced without merit. However, the Coast Guard stands by its decision.
“A Certificate of Inspection (COI) is required for boats classified as passenger for hire vessels,” said Adam Eggers, a spokesman with the Coast Guard. “While he operates a 501c non-profit organization, the regulations do not consider if a profit is made, only if consideration is being paid for passage. Mr. Sakacs receives money for outside sources to operate the vessel and take passengers on his vessel.”
Without the proper license, the boat has been decommissioned. Sakacs said amid mounting costs for licensing and repairs, he estimated it would cost $125,000 to $150,000 to make the necessary alterations.
Sakacs, who has appealed and been denied twice, said no proper evidence was given to suggest the vessel was in violation in both appeals.
In a denial letter marked April 8, 2014, the Coast Guard states “A passenger for hire is a passenger for whom consideration is contributed as a condition of carriage on the vessel, whether directly or indirectly flowing to the owner, charterer, operator, agent, or any other person having an interest in the vessel.”
Students protested the decision and gathered at Terminal Island, May 10 to express their displeasure. Sakacs may appeal one final time to the Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander.
“We’ve never charged the kids or asked anyone else for donations for trip expenses,” Sakacs said. “We do all of that ourselves.”
While Sakacs said denial letters have made no mention of safety concerns, Eggers stressed that it is the top priority.
“This is 100 percent a safety concern,” Eggers said. “That is our mandate and our mission. We enforce the laws and regulations uniformly to every passenger vessel. Our main concern is a vessel operating on the water, carrying a group of children, especially with limited experience on the ocean that has not been officially deemed safe by the Coast Guard.”
Eggers said the vessel was last inspected as a certificated passenger vessel in 2007, and it failed the inspection primarily due to the condition of the hull, which is wooden and requires to be dry-docked during inspection. The owner at the time surrendered the COI. Eggers added that the Coast Guard conducted an examination of Streamliner in February, which was “cursory in nature and in accordance with recreational vessel standards, not certificated passenger vessel regulations, which are more stringent.”
Still, Sakacs said he believes the Coast Guard is conducting selective enforcement.