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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

LICENSED CAPTAIN OR NOT?

LICENSED CAPTAIN OR NOT?

I recently received a call from a long time marine business client looking for some help resolving a problem that had arisen regarding the need for a licensed captain.
For the past several years, this particular client has operated a camp for kids with cancer at his waterfront property.  The camp is free for all children who are referred through a particular well known local non profit.   The entire cost of the camp is underwritten by this particular client so campers pay nothing. 
Not surprisingly, one of the favorite activities for the kids is going on their daily boat trip.  Trips vary each day taking campers fishing, water skiing, eco tours, trips to a waterfront restaurant for lunch, etc.  These boat trips have always been conducted by volunteer (but very experienced) boat operators. 
Based upon the outstanding feedback received from camp attendees and their parents, my client decided this year he would offer a similar summer camp for local kids.  This summer camp however, includes a minimal fee to cover expenses for the week.  My client arranged to use the exact same experienced volunteer boat operators whom he used for his free camp, but was told by his insurer they would not issue an insurance policy unless licensed captains were operating the boats taking campers out on their daily boat trips.
His question of course, was why do I need a licensed captain for my summer camp when I never needed one before.
I must admit I have never encountered an insurance company refusing to issue an insurance policy for not using licensed captains, but as a business lawyer in an admiralty and maritime firm, every year I do get the same basic question from at least a couple of my clients, that being: am I required to have a licensed captain operating my boat?
The Coast Guard provides a very good and detailed explanation of when a licensed captain is required.   
Under Coast Guard rules, a licensed captain is required for all charter operations.  Charter boats are referred to as uninspected passenger vessels (UPV).   Coast Guard regulations make it illegal for a UPV to engage in “passenger for hire” operations without a Coast Guard licensed captain.  
A passenger for hire is a “passenger for whom a consideration is contributed as a condition of carriage whether directly or indirectly flowing to the owner, charterer, operator, agent, or any other person interested in the vessel is a passenger for hire.”  Basically, anyone who is required to contribute something to get on the boat.
Thus, in my client's case I had to break him the bad news.  Coast Guard regulations demanded he get licensed captains to operate the boats for summer camp because attendees were required to pay a fee to attend camp.  Conversely, since attendees at his kids with cancer camp were not required to pay anything to attend, this would be classified as a recreational excursion and volunteer boat operators were acceptable (I’ll leave for another day a discussion of the propriety of volunteer boat operators from a boating accident and boating injury perspective).
Aside from the importance of the question for my client, locals up and down the east coast need to understand this is an important issue for every weekend warrior. 
It's no secret the Coast Guard has been cracking down up and down the east coast on what they perceive to be unlawful charter boats.  It is not uncommon for a small center console type boat with several individuals aboard heading in from a day of fishing to be stopped by the Coast Guard.  Questions usually begin with an eye towards a safety check, but then quickly transition in to questioning the vessel operator and passengers separately regarding how the voyage was financed.  
In fact, there appear to be instances where the Coast Guard has determined an illegal charter to exist where a boat owner basically said to one of his buddies Hey Joe, if you pay for half the fuel, food and drinks we can go out trolling for dolphin.  The logic presumably being that Joes buddy felt he was required  to pay for half the fuel, food or drinks to go fishing.  Illegal charters can subject a vessel operator to criminal and civil liability of up to $40,000.00 per violation. 
Given the high degree of confusion surrounding the issue, the Coast Guard has published guidance specifically stating it is not an illegal charter when passengers freely and voluntarily contribute to the voyage.  Thus, for anyone who fishes recreationally, the lesson to be learned is if your fishing buddies don't feel they are freely and voluntarily sharing the expenses of the fishing trip, an otherwise fun day of fishing could end up as a very costly nightmare.