Baltimore – Inspections guarantee the fulfillment of a required specification. Some, like skydiving, are easily seen as a necessity for safe operation and safety of the consumer. So do you think to look for an inspection sticker when you board a ferry, cruise around in a sailboat, take a water taxi, or charter a fishing boat?
When it comes to boats in the U.S., the responsibility falls on Coast Guard marine inspectors to conduct the inspections of boats used for commercial purpose.
“Basically there are two different sides to marine inspections,” said Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Studie, a marine inspector with Coast Guard Sector Baltimore. “There are the foreign vessels, which are handled by the Coast Guard’s port state control department. The other side encompasses domestic vessels, which is what I currently do.”
Domestic vessels are handled by the Coast Guard’s inspections department and are further divided into two groups: small passenger vessels and deep-draft vessels.
Now a very structured system, the history of marine inspections is fraught with challenges and disasters. From the introduction of steam engines to sailing ships in the 1800’s there were very few regulations in place. From the 1820’s on, the loss of life during boiler explosions started becoming more evident.
In 1837 the explosion of the steamboat Pulaski, off the coast of North Carolina, claimed 100 lives. In response, a commercial vessel inspection act was passed a year later that would demand the installation of fire-fighting and life-saving equipment.
Congress passed the Steamboat Act of 1852 following the death of 700 people in seven disasters within the eight-month period between December 1851 and July 1852. This act expanded the Act of 1838 and affected steamships carrying passengers by controlling inspections and licensing.
“Following the Civil War there were a couple of serious accidents that killed a lot of people,” said Studie.
During the Civil War commercial vessel safety efforts were less regulated leading to the largest commercial maritime disaster in U.S. history. Somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 passengers died aboard the sternwheeler Sultana while carrying the 376 allowed passengers and approximately 2,000 Union veterans on a trip from Memphis, Tennessee, to Cairo, Illinois.
The deaths aboard the Sultana lead to the creation of the Steamboat Inspection Service in 1871.
The Steamboat Inspection Service was a predecessor and our first branch of inspections, said Studie.
“Unfortunately all the regulations that we have stem from some tragedy,” added Studie.
“I’m proud of the strides the maritime industry has made and the partnership that exists between the mariners, operators and regulators,” added Lt. Cmdr. Eddie Lesane, chief of the inspection division at Sector Baltimore. “The ultimate goal is to ensure a safe, secure and environmentally sound commerce and there’s plenty of examples of maritime partnerships that were established with the same goals in mind. “
Today, marine inspectors check the ship’s electrical, engineering and pollution prevention equipment. Inspectors also check life jackets and other survival equipment.
“We check the hulls of the vessels,” said Studie. “Whether they’re made of wood, fiberglass, steel or aluminum, we check that they are in great shape and seaworthy.”
The Coast Guard issues a fiver-year certificate of inspection, which requires an annual inspection.
“That’s something boaters can look for,” added Studie. “The inspected vessels all get stickers saying the vessel is inspected and when the expiration date is.”
The evolution of marine inspection has lead to regulations that protect the environment, provide a standard for the seaworthiness of the vessel and reliability of emergency equipment.
“What we provide is another set of eyes to ensure everyone is safe,” said Studie. “We look to keep the boating public safe, to keep the playing field level for everyone and that everyone is held to the same standards.”