Coast Guard continues to take aim at illegal charters

Port of San Diego hopes to advance a policy regulating under-the-radar passenger-for-hire operations.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — Boaters in San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles beware: the feds are cracking down on unauthorized passenger-for-hire activities in local waters.

If you own a recreational vessel of any size then it’s possible, maybe even likely, you’ve considered renting it out to a third party to make a few extra dollars.

Perhaps someone thought it would be a great idea to host a group of friends aboard your boat for a Friday night party, even offered to pay a few hundred dollars as rent for the evening. Maybe a group of seven or eight anglers want to go out on a fishing trip and figured it’d be more convenient to hire your boat than to go through a commercial landing.

The reasons why anyone might want to rent out your boat – whether for a few hours, the weekend or longer – are aplenty. Any of those reasons could get you in trouble with regional or federal law enforcement authorities, if you are not an authorized passenger-for-hire.

Any vessel owner operating a vessel as a for-hire service but without the proper U.S. Coast Guard documentation is in violation of federal law. Captains are required to meet certain licensing requirements, while a vessel must past a safety inspection.

Coast Guard officials warned boaters and the general public in March about illegal charter boat operations in the Los Angeles area, monitoring local waterways for unauthorized passenger-for-hire activity.

On March 16 the Coast Guard announced it would ramp up monitoring of illegal charter activities “to ensure public safety on local waterways.”

The Coast Guard specifically will be cracking down on recreational boaters using their vessels to carry more than six passengers for commercial purposes. Any vessel with six or more passengers must have a valid and current Certificate of Inspection from the Coast Guard.

“The Captain of the Port issued several ‘Captain of the Port Orders’ to specific vessel operators to cease operations as commercial vessels carrying more than six passengers, including one passenger for hire, and in some cases to cease operations carrying any passengers for hire,” Coast Guard officials stated in the March 16 announcement. “A passenger is considered for hire if they contribute any economic benefit, monetary contribution, or a donation as a condition of carriage, to any person having an interest in the vessel, unless the contribution is from a voluntarily sharing of voyage expenses.”

Only Coast Guard credentialed or licensed vessel operators are permitted to carry passengers for commercial purposes. A Coast Guard issued Certificate of Inspection, which verifies certain federal safety standards have been met, must be conspicuously displayed on any vessel carrying six or more passengers.

“Vessels that do not meet these standards pose serious safety concerns to the public and environment,” Coast Guard officials said in an official statement. “In addition to the noted safety concerns, vessels that do not comply with federal regulations adversely impact the livelihood of legitimate operators who do comply with federal regulations.”

Passengers booking a passenger-for-hire service – especially if the reservation is made online – should ask the operator several questions to determine whether or not the charter is legal, according to the Coast Guard team in Los Angeles-Long Beach.

“When reserving trips, prospective passengers are encouraged to ask the operator in advance for proof the vessel is compliant with Coast Guard requirements. Passengers may also request a vessel’s captain to show his or her valid Coast Guard license,” Coast Guard officials stated.

Passengers can verify a captain’s license or report an illegal charter operation by contacting the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach Command Center at 310-521-3801.

The Coast Guard’s March announcement coincided with The Log’s reporting of a series of illegal charter, passenger-for-hire or “boat and breakfast” activity in the Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego areas.

A recreational boater in Marina del Rey, for example, allegedly engaged in an illegal commercial charter operation in March 2016. Unauthorized passenger-for-hire activity has also been a growing issue for Harbor Police officials in San Diego. The Log reported an increase of illegal charter activities in the Port of San Diego last summer.

Los Angeles County and Port of San Diego officials have been working to craft policy to curb illegal charter activity.

The Small Craft Harbor Commission, which deliberates and reviews many boating and waterfront activities in Marina del Rey, recently discussed increased efforts to address illegal charters at Los Angeles County’s largest harbor. Staff at the county’s Department of Beaches and Harbors, for example, contemplated sweeps or sting operations to possibly weed out illegal charter operations.

Meanwhile the Port of San Diego could be drafting a policy regulating illegal charter operations within the next few months. The city recently looked into cracking down on short-term vacation rentals (AirBnB, etc.) in residential districts, courtesy of an opinion issued by San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott in mid-March.

Port district staff confirmed the city attorney’s opinion does not apply to marinas and boating operations. San Diego’s City Council, according to news reports, struggled to move forward with Elliott’s opinion, so the potential regulation of illegal charters or boat and breakfast activity via curbs on short-term vacation rental activity is still a fluid situation.

A spokesperson with the Port of San Diego, in an email to The Log, stated multiple agencies are developing a standardized approach to address illegal charters in the harbor.

“Illegal charters are a problem in ports throughout the country. Locally, Sector San Diego of the Coast Guard has put together a joint working group called the ‘Illegal Charter Working Group’ to address local, illegal charters,” the port district spokesperson stated.

“The Port of San Diego is a part of that working group along with the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the US Attorney’s Office, San Diego City Attorney’s Office, Sport Fishing Association, and representatives from Mission Bay and Oceanside,” the spokesperson continued. “Because some activities are either federal, state, local or a combination, it’s critical that all levels are represented in the working group.”

Illegal charters in Oceanside Harbor and San Diego’s Mission Bay would also be addressed, according to the port district spokesperson.

“The group will consider any amendments that may be necessary with existing regulations,” the spokesperson stated. “Ultimately, the group will put together a public education piece before any efforts to enforce new vessel charter laws.”

Nina K. Jussila photo

15 thoughts on “Coast Guard continues to take aim at illegal charters

  • April 6, 2017 at 10:16 am

    I see in the future small boat charters going the way of Uber and Lyft even if a Coast Guard Captains license is required. Authorities are more interested in the lost tax revenue than the issue of safety.

  • April 6, 2017 at 10:32 am

    As Uber demonstrates, consumers suffer when denied the opportunity to procure services from providers, like taxi cabs, that are governmentally regulated. Safety concerns are valid, but why not let the consumer decide if they want to pay extra to ride on a federally-regulated vessel. The rules seem to make it difficult to take my friends fishing and split costs. So, I only take my real good friends. I used to donate trips on my boat to charities to auction off in fund raising events. Now I learn that may be illegal, so I stopped doing that. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard spends its resources protecting the licensed operations from competition that benefits the consumer. And note that it benefits even the consumer who chooses to pay extra for a regulated provider, since even those regulated providers feel the effects of competition.

    • April 7, 2017 at 9:13 pm

      Ahoy Rick. The Laws pertain to “Passengers for Hire” Ref: CFR 46. Monsys have to be exchanged, and if they are, then they are “Passengers for Hire”. Given that,
      when Passengers for Hire are onboard it is in fact a Charter, then CFR 46 kicks in and the laws are right there. It’s really quite simple. Problem is that woud be and unlicensed operators try to make exceptions and do their own interpretations, knowing that enforcement of the laws (CFR-46) has bee virtually nonexistent over too many years. ENFORCEMENT IS THE ISSUE.

    • April 7, 2017 at 10:10 pm

      Not true ! The USCG does not spend its resources PROTECTING licensed Charter Operators. They will be spending their resources on protecting Charter CUSTOMERS for safety reasons – nothing to do with competition. There is no competition when the players are ILLEGAL. It;s not about competition, it is about Safety of life.

      • July 28, 2020 at 7:44 pm

        In these comments you seem very concerned about the safety of others at sea…

        Are you not the SAME Alex G Balian who was court-martialed and convicted by the US Navy of failing to provide assistance to desperate boaters who eventually killed and ate each other to stay alive? 58 people died!? The irony is unbelievable! I’ll leave the link here for others to see:

        The fact that you’re trying to run USCG licensed captains doing six pack charters out of business with your past record is insane… You shouldn’t even have a captain’s license.

    • April 12, 2017 at 2:45 pm

      Are you sure about that? Last time I looked (and it’s been several years) there is no prohibition against taking your friends out boating ans splitting fuel, food and drink costs.

  • April 6, 2017 at 11:17 am

    Following up on Rick O.’s thoughts above, I too, have been donating rides on my boat to a favorite 501(c) organization through their ‘silent auction’ fund-raising efforts once a year. Where can I find out more about what the rules are regarding the legal implications of continuing to donate rides, even though I don’t receive any remuneration in regards to the rides from anyone, and especially the organization. My boat is only large enough to allow me to comfortably carry two passengers on these rides. Appreciate any helpful feedback……and, Thanks in advance.

    • April 7, 2017 at 9:06 pm

      This is pure conecture. Authorities ARE interested in Safety. The problem is that even tough all required laws exist, enforcement of these laws DOES NOT EXIST.
      The losers and pirates that are getting away with violations will soon be held ACCOUNTABLE, as they should have been all along.

    • April 7, 2017 at 9:48 pm

      IN this case, the donation is not a Charter. Why? Because monies are not exchanged, you are receiving no compensation, and your people on board are NOT “Passengers for Hire”. Al of this is laid out in CFR 46. Check out what the definition of “Passenger for Hire” is, and you will see that this is what determines whether or not the situation is in fact a Charter. Watch out what friends, other Businesses or even uninformed lawyers say. Many hardly know the rules at all.
      I say you are OK on your Donations based upon precisely what you say. Thanks.

  • April 6, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    I would think this would drive the growth of owner/operator demise charter business. I’m not a maritime attorney but I believe that (1) if owner does not have anything to do with vessel operations during charter, (2) requires a USCG licensed captain, and (3) allows charterer to select their own captain, then its legal. Charterer is responsible for insurance. IMHO

    • April 7, 2017 at 9:26 pm

      Thanks. You are talking about “Bareboat” Charters and what you say is true except for one thing. The Charterer must “Rent” the Yacht from the vessel owner.
      What we have in this Marina is that “Agents” (Primarily Sailing Organizations) are acting as owners or owner’s agents and doing the Chartering. This is illegal. Also remember that the owner of the vessel cannot be on board during a Bareboat Charter. All of this is covered in CFR 46,

  • April 6, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    What is the penalty for those running illegal charters?

    • April 6, 2017 at 6:41 pm

      Our Naz*i government takes everything you will ever own and then murders you and your family (one way or another ie: poison food, water and air and wars etc… for them and their rich friends to get richer… or just for fun…

      I say let LEGAL Americans WORK for once vs doing everything possible to shut them down or at least take every cent they/we can make… There is NO freedom. The hell with this safety BS which is really ONLY all about taking your money…

    • April 7, 2017 at 9:33 pm

      My experience over 27 years of Chartering (Legally) is that it depends upon what the investigating USCG Officer comes up with during his investigation. I have seen
      Warnings, first fines of $350.00, second fines of $750.00 and third offenses resulting in cessation of operations and removal of licensing . Lately, recommended fines are much greater ($3500.00) (5,00000) etc. The action of the Investigating Officer will determine the fine. Often, every case is different. More shoud be following from the USCG as the illegal charter operations issue continue to break ground and show their ugly heads. First step EXPOSURE, next step ACTION.

  • April 6, 2017 at 6:36 pm

    Let the buyer decide who to hire. Enough already with this government red tape to ONLY make more tax / fine etc money. We have millions of laws to stop us from making money and to take any money we do make. How about getting down to about 10 laws that we all can know and live by? Let a jury decide intent, guilt and JUST punishment if / when any problem arises. WOW, freedom and real America with EQUAL justice for ONCE and for ALL. Hummm, never happen in our AmeriKA.
    LET LEGAL AMERICANS WORK for once dhaaa.



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