Target 8: Overcrowded, illegal charters pose huge problem for Coast Guard

(WFLA) – On any given day, at any given time, any of the thousands of boat operators along Florida’s west coast can decide to make some extra money by loading and charging more passengers on board than allowed by law.

It falls on the U.S. Coast Guard to stop it.

“It’s a huge problem,” concedes St. Petersburg Sector Commander Captain Holly Najarian.

Capt. Najarian hears about a lot of illegal charters after the fact.

“Finding a paper trail that may or may not exist is difficult after the fact,” she said.

Unless a vessel carries a Coast Guard certification sticker, it can only board six paying passengers. If the person paying for the charter brings his own captain, crew, fuel and food, that is called a bareboat charter. A bareboat charter is allowed 12 passengers.

A legal loophole?

Passengers need to ask questions. Look for a Coast Guard certification sticker on the boat, life boats and/or rings. Is the crew trained? Were they drug tested? Does the boat appear to be in disrepair? Is there rust or rot? Ask for the captain’s credentials.

“You wouldn’t get on board a plane if the pilot didn’t have the right credentials to fly the plane, so we don’t want you to get on a boat without a master that knows what he’s doing,” Capt. Najarian said.

If you get on board and it doesn’t feel right and you don’t think you’re getting a straight answer, she encourages you to walk off that boat and find another operator on the waterfront.

During this year’s Gasparilla invasion, the Coast Guard was alerted in real time about possible illegal charters.

It received reports about a yacht called the Ocean Drive, which is not Coast Guard certified.

According to Captain Najarian, the boat was not stopped because of the number of boats taking part in the flotilla. Allowing for safe transportation is of the utmost importance. Stopping a yacht in the middle of the invasion may have presented safety issues.

Instead, the Coast Guard investigated afterward and found none of the passengers paid. That means it was no charter, the boat operated legally.

There is no passenger limit for someone operating a boat who invites friends for a ride. Another legal loophole?

But, Gasparilla is a big money day for charter boat companies.

“I have to take it at face value,” explained Capt. Najarian. “You know if I went around thinking that everybody was lying to us, I’d never sleep at night.”

What keeps Capt. Najarian up at night are incidents like those involving the yacht, the Jaguar.

According to a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office report, in March, 15 passengers chartered the boat, which is not Coast Guard certified.

Two died when a passenger got in trouble swimming and a crew member attempted a rescue.

It is Capt. Najarian’s responsibility to conduct search and rescue and she decides when to call it off.

“To look a family member in the face and tell them that we’re not going to be bringing their loved one home, I can’t think of anything more difficult thing to do,” she said.

The Coast Guard’s legal staff is deciding whether to bring charges in the case involving the Jaguar.

Whatever attorneys decide will send a loud message to those thinking about making a buck running an illegal, overcrowded charter.

If you have a problem that you think should be investigated, call our Target 8 Helpline at 1-800-338-0808.

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