Party boat captains upset over Coast Guard regulations

The Coast Guard says it's trying to keep party boats safe, but captains say marine safety rules are confusing and out of touch with the charter boat industry.

It's created a mess on the lakefront, where people who rented boats for a cruise on the lake sometimes found themselves stuck on dry land.

"They caught us completely off guard, they had a station set up on the dock, computers, officers," said Dois Allen, Bareboat Captain. 

Captain Allen handles what are called "bareboat charters," taking groups of up to twelve people out on the lake, maybe for a bachelorette or graduation party.

However, four weeks ago, a surprise Coast Guard inspection ended his party boat's outing before it had "barely" begun.

"The renters were told to disembark on the boat and return to the dock," said Captain Allen. "End of the charter."

Bareboats get their names from customers renting a" bareboat". No captain or crew provided, the customers hire them. Under Coast Guard rules, a true bareboat charter is considered a "recreational" outing, so the safety rules are not as strict as for commercial trips.

"While it may seem like it's a safe operation, it might not be, because of all the safety equipment and training that's missing," said Lt. Kate Woods, U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard said Captain Allen's charter broke the rules because one of the deckhands was an employee of the boat's owner. It wasn't a true bareboat, recreational charter. That meant it was a commercial boat, which needed a certificate of inspection.  

Veteran Captain Mark Stevenson chairs a maritime advisory committee. He says numerous captains have voiced concerns about the confusing rules about bareboat charters. 

"The captains are not trained to be lawyers to read eight and 10-page contracts and be able to interpret whether it's correct or not," said Captain Stevenson.

Captains we spoke with say the rules regarding bareboat charters were created decades ago when the rental boat business was just a fraction of what it is today.

Bill Russell investigated illegal charters for the Coast Guard before becoming a maritime consultant. 

"The bareboat industry have no direction! They have a law that's 40 years old that says you can't carry passengers for hire without meeting one of these subchapters," said Russell.

Coast guard officials, however, say that the captains and any owners who rent out party boats should recognize that it's likely to be viewed as a commercial enterprise, not merely recreation, and they should expect to be closely regulated.

"So all the Coast Guard is expecting is that if vessel operators and owners want to maintain control of their vessel and charge money to be on board, that they meet commercial safety regulations just like all the other operators on the lake," said Lt. Woods.