Passenger vessel operators are caught between the Coast Guard and Congress as the deadline looms for a potentially costly equipment replacement.

The nail-biting comes courtesy of several laws and pending legislation. The most recent is the Coast Guard Authorization Act, which passed the House and is now in the Senate. It requires small passenger vessel operators to have survival craft that keep passengers from being immersed in water if their vessels are built or significantly altered after January 2016, or if they operate in cold water.

If that provision fails in the Senate, then everyone must have out-of-water craft thanks to a 2010 law originally effective this year. The start was delayed until next year as the Coast Guard compiled data on everything from accidents to the cost of the changes.

The agency concluded that carrying out-of-water survival craft in place of life floats and buoyant apparatus “is not anticipated to have a significant effect on vessel safety.” They also said it would cost $350 million over 10 years to replace life floats and other equipment and service and maintain new craft.

The Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) has argued that the one-size-fits-all approach in the original legislation made no sense and was not justified by the casualty history.

A new Coast Guard bulletin reminds operators that by Feb. 26, 2016 they must have an approved survival craft that “ensures that no part of an individual is immersed in water.”

The bulletin is a not-so-subtle nudge to make sure “you are aware of this issue and you are starting to plan for this requirement.”

They are indeed aware.

“It’s a very awkward dilemma for the operator,” said Ed Welch, PVA’s legislative director. The Coast Guard knows the law may change, “but right now, the law is the law.”

So the Coast Guard suggests operators consider, for example, how and where the out-of-water survival craft will be mounted, whether the new equipment will affect the vessel’s stability – and as a result the number of passengers allowed – and the market demand for new craft.

The operators also probably are thinking about whether there’s market demand for the old models and how to pay for the new equipment – just in case.

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.