The Coast Guard’s campaign against illegal charter operations bagged a 147' yacht in Florida Sunday, when an enforcement team found the boat overloaded with passengers and lacking a certificate of inspection.
The 147'x28’9” Golden Touch II was carrying 47 passengers off Nixon Beach on Key Biscayne near Miami when it was stopped and boarded by a crew from the Coast Guard Miami station. The voyage was terminated, and in addition to the violations for exceeding passenger capacity and failure to have a valid COI, the operator was also issued violations for failing to have a stability letter for the vessel, and a drug and alcohol program for its crew, according to a Coast Guard statement.
Units in the Coast Guard 7th District began cracking down on unlicensed charter operations in 2015, with the rise of online advertising and ridesharing apps for smartphones that enterprising boat operators use to connect with customers.
Legitimate licensed charter operators pointed the Coast Guard to what they saw as a growing problem. The issue was underscored by fatal accidents involving illegal charters, most recently an April 1 incident when a 25-year-old charter customer was killed in Biscayne Bay.
Federal prosecutors charged Mauricio Alvarez, 49, with causing the death when he put the engines of the 91' yacht Miami Vice into reverse, striking Menendez and injuring another guest. Just weeks before the Coast Guard had issued Alvarez a violation for operating an illegal charter as an unlicensed captain.
“Tragically people have lost their lives on illegal charters, as was seen in the case of the vessel Jaguar in the Tampa Bay area and in the case of the Miami Vice yacht in Miami,” said Capt. Ladonn Allen, chief of Coast Guard 7th District prevention department.
“The unsafe atmospheres that these types of companies and unlicensed captains, who knowingly engage in illegal activity, create on their boats show a complete disregard for passenger safety and have been responsible for multiple deaths in Florida alone,” said Allen. “We cannot stress enough to anyone looking to charter a boat to verify the captain’s license and safety of the vessel.”
The owner and operator of the Golden Touch II faces maximum civil penalties amounting up to $41,456 for this illegal passenger for hire operation, Coast Guard officials said.
The Golden Touch II was the biggest catch of the weekend for a Coast Guard crew using a 33' special purpose craft-law enforcement boat, a high speed vessel based on the Defender-class boats.
On Friday the crew terminated the voyage of the 48' yacht Blessed in the Miami River, and issued violations for exceeding passenger capacity, failure to have a valid certificate of inspection, stability letter and drug and alcohol program, and not having a credentialed mariner in control of the vessel. The owner and operator of the Blessed faces the same maximum civil penalties potential of $41,546.
The Coast Guard also terminated the voyages of two charter vessels on Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri, one on Aug. 17 and the other on Aug. 18, because the vessels exceeded the legal limit of 12 passengers.
The basic laws and definitions governing charter services can be found in Title 46 of the U.S. Code 2101(35) and Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations 175.400.
“Boating safety and legal chartering operations remain top Coast Guard priorities along our waterway system,” said Capt. Scott Stoermer, the captain of the port for Coast Guard Sector Upper Mississippi River. “Given the inherently elevated risks that come with congestion along Lake of the Ozarks in summer months, continued education and law enforcement presence are important elements to best ensure an enjoyable time on the water is also a safe one.”
Both Lake of the Ozarks cases are under investigation.