Ask A Maritime Attorney: How will the Coast Guard regulate the license of a hired captain after crashing a sailboat?

Question:

I have been reading a lot lately about a hired captain who ran a sailboat into the rocks at the entrance to Turtle Bay in Mexico in early November.  The reports and statements by people who seem to know the facts indicate that this was a clear case of human-error by the captain, for allowing the boat to get so close to the rocks.  If that is true, will the Coast Guard revoke his Captain’s license?  He apparently had a 200-ton Master’s license issued by the Coast Guard, but I haven’t heard or read anything about efforts to revoke his license.  How does the Coast Guard regulate these things?

 

Answer

The Coast Guard issues Captain’s licenses and other Merchant Mariner’s Documents (“MMD”), and yes – what the Coast Guard gives, they can take away.  But the disciplinary process can be complicated.  Let’s first provide some background for this particular case.

The incident referred to by our reader involved a licensed captain who was “hired” by the owner of a 38-foot recreational sailboat to skipper the boat during the “Baja Ha-Ha.” The event, promoted by Latitude 38 magazine, is an annual cruiser’s rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, organized as an unofficial kick-off to the beginning of the winter cruising season in Mexico.  It attracts a wide range of sailors and cruisers, and this year’s online entry page listed 131 participating boats.

The Rally includes three stops along the way for participants to socialize ashore.  The first stop is Bahia Tortuga, also known as Turtle Bay.  The entrance to the bay requires boats arriving from the north to give a wide berth to the rocky point at the western end of the bay.  By all accounts, the hired skipper of the sailboat made his approach from a tight angle.  He hit the rocky point near the entrance and the boat sank.

So, our reader, and a slew of other people on social media, believe that the skipper was negligent and, as such, the Coast Guard should revoke his license.  But it’s not that simple.  The Coast Guard probably lacks jurisdiction to act in this case.

Jurisdiction is the power of an entity, such as a court or an administrative body, to hear or determine the case.  Jurisdiction in Coast Guard misconduct cases is established only if the alleged misconduct occurred while the mariner was acting under the authority of his license (see 46 U.S. Code §7703).  A mariner acts under the authority of a Coast Guard-issued credential or license if the credential or license is required either by law or regulation, or by an employer as a condition of employment (see 46 C.F.R. §5.57(a)).

A Coast Guard credential or license may be required by law or regulation under a wide range of circumstances, especially when a mariner is working aboard a large commercial vessel.  But with recreational yachts, this is usually limited to vessels that are carrying passengers for hire.  Chartered sportfishing boats, dinner cruise boats, Catalina ferries and other small commercial passenger services all require a licensed captain because they carry passengers for hire. This was clearly not the case with the skipper of the boat in the Turtle Bay incident.

So, the next question is whether his status as a licensed mariner was required as a condition of employment aboard the boat?  We may be tempted to say “yes.” The fact that the owner agreed to pay the skipper’s out-of-pocket expenses may be deemed to create an employment relationship.  But it does not appear that the skipper’s license was expressly required as a condition of employment.  He had a license, and he may have discussed the license with the boat’s owner, but the relationship was just too ambiguous to really draw any conclusions about the detailed terms of employment.

I should note that a licensed mariner may also be deemed to be acting under the authority of his license when performing certain administrative functions on dry land, such as applying for renewal, taking examinations for raises of grade, taking drug tests, or appearing at a suspension or revocation hearing.

But in our case, it simply does not appear that the skipper was acting under the authority of his license, which means that he will not face a disciplinary hearing for the incident, whether or not he was negligent.  But this discussion only addresses his license status.  It says nothing about whether he will be able to defend a civil lawsuit against him for negligence relating to the incident.

 

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Seal Beach. He is certified as a Specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization and a “Proctor in Admiralty” Member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States, an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law, and former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at 562-799-5508, through his website at www.weilmaritime.com,  or via email at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

One thought on “Ask A Maritime Attorney: How will the Coast Guard regulate the license of a hired captain after crashing a sailboat?

  • January 19, 2024 at 7:29 am
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    I wonder if these types of scenarios come into play when a mariner renews their credential. This captain was not acting under the authority of his license (it was not expressly required to run this private yacht), but does the USCG ever consider maritime incidents as part of safety & suitability part of the credential evaluation? If so, when? When property damage reaches a certain level? When there’s a fatality? I’ve asked reps at the National Maritime Center, attorneys, harbor masters with law enforcement backgrounds .. and get a variety of answers (even from various people who answer the phone at NMC .. although they also acknowledge they cannot speak for an evaluator, as they also judge other factors … drug test, national driver registry, etc.)

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