Coast Guard warns of illegally renting, chartering boats in Chicago

Lady JusticeCHICAGO — The Coast Guard in Chicago is stepping up efforts to educate boat owners and operators who are illegally renting their recreational boats, and warning those who elect to do so about the fines and other consequences.

In addition, passengers are being alerted to potential dangers of renting or chartering a boat from someone who is not licensed or certified, and advised to be vigilant and ask questions when renting or chartering a boat.

During the past several years, the Coast Guard has received an increasing number of reports about illegal passenger vessels conducting charter operations. Reports have been received from reputable sources including prominent members of the maritime community and legal passenger vessel operators on the southern tip of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.

In addition, recent accidents, including fatalities on suspected illegal charters in Miami and St. Petersburg, Florida, highlight the dangers associated with illegal operations and have prompted the Coast Guard’s stepped up efforts.

There have not been any fatalities in Chicago. However, with increased traffic on the lake and the Chicago River, and with the ease at which boats can be advertised for rent, the Coast Guard wants to ensure that the waterways remain safe.

Operators who take on paying passengers are considered to be a commercial vessel and must be operated by a mariner with a Coast Guard credential (license). Operating as a commercial vessel without the required documents and credentials is a violation of federal law, and if caught, the operator could be subject to criminal or civil liability. Vessels that operate with a captain who is not licensed put passengers and surrounding boats in danger.

Vessels that carry more than six passengers must also be inspected by the Coast Guard and have a Certificate of Inspection that states how many passengers may be safely carried.

“Regulations are in place to help ensure the safety of passengers,” said Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, commanding officer of Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago. “A Certificate of Inspection shows that a vessel has met Coast Guard safety standards including firefighting, live saving, navigation, and has the necessary emergency equipment.”

When the Coast Guard encounters a boat that is non-compliant with regulations, measures will be taken with the goal of bringing the vessel/operator into compliance. Those measures may include education, verbal or written warnings, civil penalties, vessel voyage termination, arrest or vessel seizure.

Last summer, the Coast Guard and Illinois Department of Natural Resources conducted surge operations to stop illegal passenger vessel operators. During those operations, fifty percent of stopped vessels were found to be operating illegally on Lake Michigan in the Chicago area. In addition, 13 vessel operators were served with Captain of the Port Orders to cease operating as a commercial passenger vessel until they complied with federal laws and regulations.

In addition to the Captain of the Port Orders, last summer the Coast Guard issued multiple Notice of Violation citations while IDNR issued 14 misdemeanor charges, including obstruction of justice. The combined fines and penalties imposed to the responsible parties from both agencies totaled more than $140,000.

The first of several civil penalties from last summer was announced in March. A Chicago area owner was fined $14,000 for operating his vessel as an illegal charter vessel on Lake Michigan last summer.

Vessels proven to be operating illegally can be subjected to fines of up to $42,750 or more per day. Repeated violations or an accident leading to injury or death on non-compliant vessels can lead to felony criminal charges. Passengers who knowingly provide false information or false statements to the Coast Guard during an investigation or during questioning about a vessel operating illegally can also be fined.

The use of social media sites, web-based boat sharing applications, and consumer-to-consumer e-commerce, has significantly increased the convenience of advertising services by owners and operators of recreational vessels, as well as the ease of members of the general public to hire passenger vessels. More boat owners are advertising their vessels on boat sharing websites and mobile apps, and may be unaware of the risks and regulations for charter boats. Most passengers do not know that they booked or are onboard an illegal and unsafe voyage until the boat is boarded by the Coast Guard or IDNR.

When reserving boats, prospective passengers should ask the operator in advance for proof the vessel is compliant with Coast Guard requirements. Availability on a website is not a guarantee of regulatory compliance. Passengers have the right to see the captain’s license and Certificate of Inspection to ensure the vessel and captain are certified, and a right to know they are paying for a safe voyage before handing over their money.

“My top priority is to ensure vessels carrying passengers on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River are operating safely and in accordance with the law. Vessels that do not adhere to federal regulations not only pose serious safety concerns to the public and the environment, but also adversely impact the livelihood of legitimate operators who do comply with federal regulations,” said Merchant. “Our joint efforts with IDNR are helping to eliminate unsafe vessels and unlicensed operators that do not comply with state and Coast Guard regulations from operating on our shared waterways.”

The Coast Guard has conducted extensive educational outreach to the maritime community including hosting a seminars for commercial vessel operators and those interested in becoming commercial operators. Information is also posted at all Chicago marinas to bring awareness to the issue. The Chicago Harbor Safety Committee has been a key industry group in the effort to rein in illegal charters as well. The Coast Guard is also reaching out to websites to do education on this issue as well.

The Coast Guard recommends all recreational boaters take advantage of the free Vessel Safety Check program every year offered by experienced members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadrons, two of the nation’s premier volunteer boating safety organizations. Vessel examinations determine if a vessel meets all the minimum required safety standards, if it has the proper number of life jackets on board, and if the required emergency equipment, like fire extinguishers, navigation lights and sound producing devices, are in working order.

Anyone who wishes to verify a captain’s license or the inspected status of a vessel, or who wishes to report a vessel suspected of operating illegally can contact the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago at 630-986-2155 or SMBMSUChicago@uscg.mil.

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