Coast Guard says illegal charters are growing problem. What you need to know before you book a boat.

Illegal charters are a growing problem, and because unqualified captains are dangerous, the Coast Guard in Jacksonville is cracking down.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Illegal charters are a growing problem, and because unqualified captains are dangerous, the Coast Guard in Jacksonville is cracking down. People often plan parties on the St. Johns River for events like Florida-Georgia weekend and the upcoming Boat Parade. But there’s one vital safety test the captain may have ignored so the Coast Guard wants you to know the questions to ask before you book a boat.

News4Jax rode along with a Coast Guard crew as it sailed up and down the St. Johns River. The crew told us illegal charters appear to have increased in frequency in the last five or six years.

“So they’re in the river. Down in Daytona, St. Augustine. Anywhere there’s boats, you typically find people who pay to go out on them,” said Lt. Gregory Velliky, who’s a USCG Investigating Officer. “If this happens, our first and immediate goal is to terminate the voyage. We’ll seek to terminate the voyage in a safe way.”

On Oct. 30, during festivities for this year’s Florida-Georgia game, the Coast Guard terminated an illegal charter of the 53-foot vessel Dream Chaser for failure to have the appropriate license. There were 10 people aboard: nine were passengers and one was the hired captain.

A Coast Guard Station Mayport crew terminates the voyage of the 53-foot vessel Dream Chaser on the St. Johns River. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard points out a lot of boat owners are not aware they are required to have a Merchant Mariner’s license to take paying passengers. Getting that license involves considerable safety training.

But that license is key for a safe voyage for everyone on the water so USCG will be out on the river monitoring the weekend of Nov. 27 during the Jacksonville Light Boat Parade. They will do random stops and inspections while keeping an eye out for a telltale sign: Captains who don’t seem to have a relationship with the people on board.

Besides actually searching on the river, USCG investigators are also searching online. They say there are numerous social media posts and websites offering people a boat trip where the operator is not licensed as a Merchant Mariner.

“We do a lot of recreational safety inspections when out on the water. Go out interact with people. When we step onboard. Going to make sure everyone has all their safety equipment,” said USCG Maritime Enforcement Specialist Brandon Cusick.

Cusick said they seldom cite illegal charters and are only looking to make sure everyone is safe. However, if they find a repeat offender, they can levy fines or make civil citations. And in some cases, it can be turned over to the USCG investigating agency that handles criminal charges.

USCG says owners and operators of illegal passenger vessels can face maximum civil penalties of $60,000 or more for illegal passenger-for-hire operations. Charters that violate a Captain of the Port Order can face over $95,000. Some potential civil penalties for illegally operating a passenger vessel are:

  • Up to $7,846 for failure of operators to be enrolled in a chemical testing program
  • Up to $4,888 for failure to provide a Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection for vessels carrying more than six passengers for hire
  • Up to $16,687 for failure to produce a valid Certificate of Documentation for vessels over 5 gross tons
  • Up to $12,219 for failure to have been issued a valid Stability Letter prior to placing vessel in service with more than six passengers for hire
  • Up to $95,881 for every day of failure to comply with a Captain of the Port Order

Anyone with information regarding an illegal charter is asked to report it to USCG investigators here.

About the Authors:

Scott is a multi-Emmy Award Winning Anchor and Reporter, who also hosts the “Going Ringside With The Local Station” Podcast. Scott has been a journalist for 25 years, covering stories including six presidential elections, multiple space shuttle launches and dozens of high-profile murder trials.