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Record fine for illegal charters calls attention to nationwide problem

Jun 4, 2019 02:16 PM
Members of a Coast Guard inspection team board the 35-foot pleasure boat Fun on Lake Michigan last June near Chicago. The owner was fined $80,000 for violating federal regulations while operating the vessel and another as an illegal passenger business.

U.S. Coast Guard photo

Members of a Coast Guard inspection team board the 35-foot pleasure boat Fun on Lake Michigan last June near Chicago. The owner was fined $80,000 for violating federal regulations while operating the vessel and another as an illegal passenger business.

The U.S. Coast Guard hopes levying a record $80,000 fine against a Lake Michigan offender in February sends a strong message to anyone else illegally using recreational boats for commercial passenger service.

Robert Glick of Chicago had been stopped 10 times between June 2017 and June 2018 and told he needed to bring the two 35-foot boats he was chartering into compliance with federal regulations. Glick repeatedly was told to cease operations, including once after a passenger was injured last June, said Lt. Cmdr. S. Lincoln Puffer, executive officer with Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago, which is responsible for enforcement and oversight on about 500 miles of rivers and lakefront.

Puffer said the Coast Guard noticed a sharp rise in illegal operations a few years ago with the onset of mobile phone apps for boat charters — think Uber and Lyft for vessels.

“People are using these apps but not checking regulations,” he said. More vessel owners are listing their boats as charters via such apps without having the required credentials and safety equipment. The practice, which puts the safety of passengers at great risk, is “extremely rampant,” Puffer said.

It’s a nationwide problem that the Passenger Vessel Association has been earnestly addressing, said Eric Christensen, the group’s director of regulatory affairs and risk management.

“Our members are engaged with the Coast Guard to combat this. Illegal charters have been around since legal charters, and there always will be people trying to subvert regulations,” but it’s risen to a new level, he said.

“The rise of the sharing economy with apps such as Uber, Airbnb and GetMyBoat has put illegal operators in the palm of the customer’s hand with promises of convenient, cashless and unique experiences,” Christensen said, noting that more than 200 boat-sharing apps now exist. “This unprecedented access, combined with a lack of knowledge by the public regarding vessel chartering requirements, has resulted in legal operators losing business to illegal operators.

“When a vessel operator does not have the overhead of regulatory compliance, they can offer a cheaper product, period,” he continued. “What the public does not understand is that the reduced cost comes with reduced safety. Coast Guard requirements for vessel construction, safety equipment, mariner licensing and drug testing have all come from recommendations following marine casualties and are intended to prevent future casualties.”

In 2017, Puffer’s office started a campaign to clarify federal rules governing boating operations by posting signs at marinas, sending letters to operators offering help with compliance, and holding public meetings to educate people about what they should ask before boarding any charter boat, including whether the captain is licensed and whether the owner has a certificate of inspection.

Puffer’s safety unit and others around the country are still “actively engaged” in educating both the public and operators, he said.

“We’ve been very out in front of this, so it was blatant that this operator was ignoring us,” Puffer said, noting that Glick was given repeated opportunities to comply.

Though some operators feel they’re being unfairly targeted and that the Coast Guard is “out to get them,” Puffer said the service was “just enforcing the laws as written.”

“We’re not out there looking for every nail like we’re a hammer,” he said. “We have an extremely large backlog — over 100 suspected vessels, anything from a 20-foot pontoon to a decent-sized motor yacht — and only have bandwidth to go after the most egregious violators.”

Puffer said about three dozen people have reached out to his office in recent years about charter compliance, but just one couple has followed all the way through to run a legal operation.

The credentialing process was time consuming but was the right thing to do, said Monika Wykurz, who with her husband owns two boats that they now legally charter for day trips from May to September: Martini, a 60-foot Sea Ray, and Stray Kat, a 100-foot luxury yacht that is the largest on Lake Michigan.

“You can get discouraged by all the paperwork, but it was worth it for the safety of our customers and everybody else,” Wykurz said.

The compliance upgrade, which involved engineers and architects, included everything from welding to stability testing to electrical improvements. It also meant three months of schooling and CPR training for her husband, Robert, who captains the boats.

“We feel good about it, and the Coast Guard was very helpful,” she said.

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