Beware illegal boat operators


People will ask, “Is charter sailing legal?” Yes, but only because I’m a USCG certfied master captain, 100 tons. Illegal charters are becoming more of a menace, not just cutting into commercial passenger vessel operators’ business but also raising the specter of accidents leading to higher insurance rates and more regulation. The boats are a draw for licensed captains who may not know the risks.
The problem has become a lot more prevalent in recent years, said Mike Borgström, president of Wendella Sightseeing Co., a Chicago tour boat operator.  “Why is this important to us as an industry as small passenger vessels?” he asked. “For starters, some of these boats are doing the same thing we’re doing, without the inspection criteria.”
Beware illegal boat operatorsThe law requires a boat to be inspected if it carries more than six people with at least one paying passenger. Operators must be licensed to legally carry up to six paying riders. Commercial operators with six or more onboard — with at least one paying — must have a master’s license and a Certificate of Inspection (COI). Bareboat charters may carry a maximum of 12 without a COI. The Coast Guard has several enforcement options including taking control of the vessel, civil penalties up to $37,500, violation notices and revoking a master’s license.
“The Coast Guard knows of more incidents of individuals operating illegally,” said USCG Lt. Cmdr. Tim Tilghman, who’s based in Miami. “Good citizens and responsible marine operators” feel easier about reporting suspicious charters.

Misled into thinking it’s safe

“I don’t think people fully understand the laws that apply to bareboat charters,” Borgström said. “The public is being misled into thinking it’s safe. Many of these boats wouldn’t stand up to Coast Guard inspection. People have gotten away with it without any repercussions. We need a couple of these guys to get busted big time.”
Borgström showed a few slides of alleged illegal charters and what to look for. One slide showed a boat that operates in Chicago with a crew outfitted in matching shorts. “They take anywhere from 10 to 30 people out on that boat in and out all day. This is one of those things that you see and something’s not right there. But how do you prove it? That’s up to the Coast Guard.”
It’s ignorance of the law, ignorance of insurance requirements, it’s whether I think I have a license or I don’t. In most cases, I think all of us on the panel here feel that people that are breaking the law or operating illegally don’t realize it.”


The U.S. Coast Guard is working to educate people about the dangers of going out on the water aboard an illegal charter boat. Visitors to U.S. Coast Guard Station Chincoteague’s open house held during Pony Penning week were able to see displays and demonstrations about many different marine safety topics.

“The Virginia area, the coastline, is rich in fisheries — and it has been rich in fisheries for years — so that attracts what allows people to operate charter boats to take people fishing, to take advantage of that all throughout the year,” said Chief Warrant Officer John Colon.

Consumers need to know what they should look for before becoming a paying passenger on a charter boat trip, according to Colon.

“Anytime you rent a charter vessel, you should ask some specific question,” he said.

First, customers should ask to see the captain’s license.

“This shows that the person who is operating the charter is well trained and meets a minimum level of safety, and has been educated on emergency procedures at sea,” Colon said.

U. S. Coast Guard Station Chincoteague welcomes visitors to its open house on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 in Chincoteague, Virginia.

Charter boats require someone who holds a valid, Coast Guard-issued Merchant Mariner’s license or credential. The captain must have the license on board.

Up to 6 People

“Most people get what we call the Uninspected Passenger Vessel Merchant Mariner’s Credential — that allows them to take up to six,” Colon said. Licensed operators have to sit for a test that includes seamanship, navigational rules and basic navigational skills. Any boat carrying more than six passengers must be operated by someone with a Master’s license.

Second, customers should expect to receive a safety tutorial before the boat gets underway to ensure they know where the life jackets are located and other safety procedures. 

Be sure to ask for a receipt for your payment, signed by the operator. And look for a current Uninspected Vessel Examination decal on display.That indicates the operator of a boat carrying six or fewer passengers has had their boat voluntarily examined by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary to ensure they have met all applicable codes and requirements.

An informational flyer about passenger vessel regulations, provided by the U. S. Coast Guard

The owner has agreed to maintain the boat in the same condition from the date of the examination.

Going out on the water with an illegal charter operation could lead to problems in case of an emergency.

“There are two kinds of programs that we look at. One is the mariner’s professional aptitude — their skill sets. They learn how to take care of their passengers safely. For example, children under 90 pounds need to have personal floatation devices of the correct size for them, Colon said.

Beware Illegal Charters

“These are things that, at the time seem maybe not so consequential — until something bad happens,” he said.

The operator needs to know the regulations that apply to his size vessel and to the area in which it is operating.

The consequences for someone found to be operating an illegal charter boat run deep. They include civil penalties of up to $1,100 for failure to have a valid Coast Guard license in possession and available.

An illegal operation could be subject to up to $10,500 a day in fines. Random drug testing and a pre-employment drug test also are part of the requirements for a licensed charter boat operator. 

To find out more about obtaining a license to operate a charter boat, contact the National Maritime Center at 1-888-1ASKNMC or go to

Let’s Go Sail, but Beware Illegal Boat Charters

Scroll down Rates and pick a day for a sailboat charter. Scroll down Reviews on Trip Advisor. Go back to the Home Page of Williamsburg Charter Sails.  

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Beware Illegal Boat Captains


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