With up to an estimated 180,000 boats in summer and 25,000 docks, the Lake of the Ozarks is one of the busiest recreational waterways in the United States.

“Most people don’t realize it’s that concentrated here,” said charter Capt. Bob May of the Lake of the Ozarks Captains Association.

Even in a deep central channel 35 miles long, summer boat traffic can create an artificial chop that ricochets from shore to shore, bouncing boats like corks. “It’s a very unique experience, and people who come here for the first time can’t believe it,” said May.

So when the lake’s licensed commercial captains, like Joe Harvey of Celebration Boats, Osage Beach, Mo., May and other operators, started hearing about unlicensed charter operators, their alarms went off.

The lake’s Water Safety Council was already doing all it could to educate the public about boating safety, and the prospect of unlicensed operators taking paying customers led May, Doug Beck and about 50 other established captains to organize the Lake of the Ozarks Captains Association.

“We began pushing,” said May. “We started seeing the same thing in San Diego, south Florida with these operations advertising on the Internet and Facebook. These guys were blatantly advertising themselves,”

With one newcomer organizing an Uber-like water taxi venture, the captains went to the Coast Guard Upper Mississippi sector in St. Louis, Mo., with their concerns.

“The Coast Guard asked, ‘well, send us a list.’ So we started doing that,” said May.

Other licensed operators took the same kind of activist approach in places like Florida and Chicago, and it is having results. Coordinated enforcement sweeps by the Coast Guard with state and local marine law enforcement agency shut down unlicensed and uninspected for-hire operations all through summer 2018.

Some operators faced potential civil penalties exceeding $40,000 in some cases for failure to have licensed captains, inspection and stability documentation and other violations, according to Coast Guard officials.

The Passenger Vessel Association got out in front of the issue, talking about the problem of how online advertising and social media help sketchy operators attract unwitting customers and skate around the legal requirements for vessel inspection and operator licensing.

The resulting crackdown went way beyond the gold-coast tourist destinations like Miami, deep into the heartland, when Coast Guard teams and Missouri state officers started checking out passenger operations on the Lake of the Ozarks.

That led to citations and voyage terminations for safety violations, and investigations into for-hire operations. Two vessels were stopped during one sweep in late August: the 50’ yacht Shady Shack, with 24 passengers on board, and the 42’ Play Pen, with 15 on board. The operators faced fines up to $41,546 for a menu of violations including failure to have certificates for inspection and stability, licensed mariners at the helms, and drug and alcohol testing for crew.

“Because of the Lake of the Ozarks Captains Association,” said May, “it became a priority.”

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.