Sail with a Captain

Guests who hire skippered boats need to beware unscrupulous boat captains, which is to say those who are not accredited by the US Coast Guard. The following well-written scenario is from the USCG Office of Investigations and Casualty Analysis in a new safety alert dated June 9. It was forwarded by the Chesapeake Bay Professional Captain’s Association.

Water 2Picture the following scenario: The sea bass are running and your friend has a friend who can take you and another person fishing for a reasonable fee. He owns a boat that is ideal for fishing.

You have a great day on the water, catch plenty of fish, and begin to return at dusk. While heading back in your Captain misreads the lights of another oncoming vessel and the boat you are on just barely escapes a high-speed, broadside collision. Everyone is thrown around as your boat goes through the other boat’s wake and nearly capsizes.

You return to the dock with everyone on board shaken by the experience and you quickly come to the realization that it was simply luck nobody was injured or killed. In the above instance, what seemed as an almost benign arrangement was in fact an illegal and unsafe operation.

Sharing costs of a boat trip is perfectly legitimate and legal. But in this hypothetical, the Captain was required to be credentialed by the Coast Guard. As a result, he did not possess the basic safety knowledge to operate as a Captain of an Uninspected Passenger Vessel (UPV). Additionally, he was not regularly tested for illegal drug use. And his vessel may have lacked proper safety equipment necessary for passenger safety operations.

Sailing with a CaptainThe Coast Guard has found such “non-compliant UPV operations” flourishing because of the spread of smartphone apps for boating excursions. Here’s a list of potential illegal captains: water-taxis, offshore fishing, sight-seeing, water sports, and burial-at-sea services. Also whale watching, sunset/dinner cruises, diving charters, corporate/school functions, movie shoots, Christmas boat parades, sailing regattas, and firework shows. “What makes these types of services fall under federal requirements as commercial vessel services is whether or not one of the passengers paid a fee for the service provided.”

Accredited captains start by having at least 100 days a year on the water for three consecutive years. They spend scores of hours learning to distinguish such lights for the size of the vessel and the direction it’s traveling.

Sailing with a CaptainI will point out the Range Lights of the York Channel. It consists of a short and tall bright white light that’s blinkered so you can only see them when you’re in the channel. A matched set is eight miles away at the channel entrance. It’s important that the lights blink, one on top of the other in a seemingly random order. If they’re not blinking, then you’re looking at the bow light and bridge light of a freighter. It could be bearing down on  you.

Other scenarios include passing a vessel, dealing with storms, proper navigation, reading set and drift, and handling medical emergencies at sea.

Licenses are issued by weight class of 25 tons, 50 tons, 100 tons and so on. These range up to 2,000 tons for ocean-going cruise ships. My license is 50 tons, which authorizes me to run Williamsburg Charter Sails and deliver boats up to that class.

Sailing with a CaptainHere’s some of the experience found among licensed captains: vessel documentation, mandatory drug testing, casualty reporting, and required charts. Also: navigation lights and sound signals, life saving and firefighting equipment, safety orientation, and pollution prevention.

“All of these different items build a safety net that goes well beyond the knowledge of an average boat operator. It also goes beyond the basic safety equipment found on a typical recreational boat.”

In short, the consumer should “be mindful of the dangers of using unauthorized boat operators.”

How can you tell if the captain is accredited? Check out the charter website and find the “About Us” rail to read his or her credentials. Feel free to ask as well. Finally, check out the boat. If it’s a mess and looks unkempt, that may be a signal.

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Sailing with a Captain

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