A summer crackdown on illegal boat charters in the Chicago area snagged 22 operators who all face Coast Guard citations totaling more than $50,000, according to Coast Guard officials.

Over the past two weeks 39 boats were boarded by the Coast Guard and conservation police from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In addition to the Coast Guard notice of violation citations, the state officers issued 14 misdemeanor charges, including obstruction of justice.

The illegal charters were stopped on Lake Michigan and the Illinois River near Starved Rock State Park. The operators were slapped with administrative controls placed on their vessels with Captain of the Port (COTP) Orders by the Coast Guard, directing them to immediately cease operating as commercial passenger vessels until they comply with all federal laws and regulations.

“Failure to comply with the order can result in a civil penalty of up to $90,000 per day of continued operation, up to a total fine of $250,000. Continued violation is a class D felony and can lead to up to 10 years in jail,” according to the Coast Guard statement.

Like some Florida cities, Chicago has been a hotbed of under-the-radar boats for hire, enabled by new ride-share websites and boat-hire applications for smartphones.

That raised alarm among the Coast Guard and legitimate passenger operators, who see it as another risk on Chicago’s already congested waterways. Illegal charters were the subject of a panel discussion at the annual Passenger Vessel Association convention in Seattle this past winter, led by Mike Borgström, president of Wendella Sightseeing Co., a Chicago tour boat operator.

“For starters, some of these boats are doing the same thing we’re doing without the inspection criteria, Borgström said then. “That’s putting people in jeopardy because the boats aren’t inspected, the crew’s not licensed.”

The Chicago area is filled with summer boat charters. Small passenger vessel operators are worried that more and more of them are illegal charters. Wendella Sightseeing photo.

The Chicago area is filled with summer boat charters. Small passenger vessel operators are worried that more and more of them are illegal charters. Wendella Sightseeing photo.

Under federal law, a boat must be inspected if it carries more than six people and at least one paying passenger. Operators must be licensed to legally carry up to six paying riders – the so-called “six pack” commonly held by charter fishing captains.

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 reported terminating 22 illegal charters near Chicago in 2016, and this spring pledged a renewed effort, along with a public education campaign about how charter operators must be licensed and their vessels inspected for Coast Guard safety standards in firefighting, life saving and navigation equipment.

Outreach to Chicago’s maritime community included a seminar earlier this year for commercial vessel operators and those interested in becoming licensed commercial operators. Information about commercial passenger requirements were posted at all Chicago marinas and the Chicago Harbor Marine Safety Committee has been a key industry group in the effort.

Prospective customers should ask operators in advance for proof their vessel is compliant, Coast Guard officials say. There is also a need for more education among boat owners, they noted. “More boat owners are advertising their vessels for hire through boat sharing websites and mobile apps and are unaware of the risks and regulations for charter boats,” the Coast Guard said.

The Coast Guard is also contacting those website operators and seeking their help in educating boat owners about the requirements.

“My top priority is to ensure vessels carrying passengers on our waterways 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 Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago.

The Chicago MSU has a standing offer to help would-be charter customers verify the legal status of a boat they would like to hire, and to take tips about illegal passenger vessel operations. They can be contacted by email at [email protected] or by phone at (630) 986-2155.


Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.