When is a Second Licensed Captain Required on a Charter Boat?

QuestionI am a licensed captain and I operate a sportfishing boat in Southern California as a “six-pack” charter boat. Over the past few years, I have read a couple of your articles in The Log on charter boat operations — and I have a few questions that I don’t think you have addressed. First, do I need to have a second licensed captain aboard during extended charters, when I am away from the dock for more than 12 hours? Second, I understand that I may be able to carry more than six passengers if I offer the boat as a “bareboat charter.” Is this correct? If so, what are the regulations concerning a second captain during those voyages?

AnswerOur reader is referring to Coast Guard regulations that require passenger vessels to be inspected by the Coast Guard and require those vessel operators to be licensed captains.

Generally speaking, Coast Guard inspection and a licensed captain are required for any boat that is carrying any passengers for hire. An exception to the vessel inspection requirement exists for vessels carrying six or fewer passengers (commonly known as an “uninspected” vessel or a “six-pack” charter), but the operator must be licensed whenever a vessel is carrying at least one passenger for hire.

Coast Guard rules concerning vessel construction and equipment may be relaxed for a six-pack charter, but most of the licensing, watch standing and “manning” regulations are applicable to all passenger vessels.

Watch standing for passenger vessels is governed by federal statute, particularly U.S. Code, Title 46 section 8104. Further guidance is provided by the Coast Guard in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 46, sections 15.601 and 15.710.

Collectively, these regulations require a captain to be off duty for at least six hours within the 12 hours immediately prior to the time the vessel leaves port. After leaving port, a licensed captain may not work for more than 12 of any 24 hours at sea, except in an emergency when life or property are endangered. Therefore, assuming our reader will be at sea for more than 12 hours, he will need to employ a second licensed captain, regardless of the number of passengers that are aboard for the voyage.

A bareboat charter is a different story.

As we have noted in prior installments of this column, bareboat charters were developed as a financing tool in the commercial shipping industry. They call for a vessel owner to turn over almost all aspects of ownership to the person chartering the boat, for the duration of the charter.

Under this arrangement, the charterer is essentially the owner of the vessel during the charter, and the other people aboard are technically the charterer’s guests rather than paying passengers. Since there are no paying passengers aboard, no licensed captain is required (though the vessel’s insurance policy may have more stringent requirements).

The problem with a bareboat charter is that the charterer — not the owner — selects the captain and crew. Owners have historically presented a short list of “approved” captains. This may be acceptable if the list is fairly long and if it is clear that the charterer has a genuine choice.

However, if a charterer is a qualified operator — or if the charterer knows a qualified operator — he or she must be allowed to use that person. If the person chartering the boat is not free to select his or her own captain and crew, the arrangement is not a bareboat charter and the operation will be subject to all of the passenger-for-hire regulations discussed above.

Assuming the person operating the boat during a bareboat charter is designated by the charterer rather than the owner, and assuming that the charterer is not carrying passengers for hire during the term of the charter, the manning and watch standing requirements do not apply because the vessel is no longer a passenger vessel. It is instead simply a recreational vessel — in which case a “reasonable and prudent” standard will apply.

A bareboat charterer, like the owner of any recreational vessel, may therefore be found negligent if the boat is operated by someone suffering from fatigue or who is otherwise impaired, but there is no set standard.

Boat owners often seek to offset ownership costs by offering their boats for lease or charter, but the regulations may be complex even for a relatively small boat. Be sure to consult a maritime attorney qualified in small vessel chartering before getting under way with this type of project.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and, as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. He is also one of a small group of attorneys to be certified as an Admiralty and Maritime Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at (562) 438-8149 or at dweil@weilmaritime.com.