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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Aug. 8, 2023

Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago’s new tool aids passengers — and boarding officers

By Kyle Ford, MyCG Staff Writer

Marine Safety Unit Chicago partnered with the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee and Illinois Department of Natural Resources this summer to develop and publish a passenger safety tool, Research Before Renting, for the public and Coast Guard boarding officers (BOs) at ports with chartered passenger vessels.  

The Research Before Renting campaign site features a short survey, also accessible through a QR code, that helps passengers determine what type of rental they are on and whether their charter or rental is operating legally. The Research Before Renting tool distills important safety information and makes complex regulations more user friendly, according to Lt. Rachael Ault, chief of vessel inspections for Marine Safety Unit Chicago. 

Increase in charters since COVID 

The Coast Guard has seen an uptick in both legal and illegal charter activity nationwide due to the increase of charter options online.  

“Since COVID, we’re seeing an overall increase in boat rentals, to include people looking for ways to assist with paying for their vessels,” said Cmdr. Kelli Dougherty, chief of the Investigations Division of the Office of Investigations & Casualty Analysis (CG-INV). “This (Research Before Renting) is a good gauge to ensure customers have a better understanding of the legal liabilities and potential safety concerns before they charter a vessel.” 

Determining charter status  

When traveling on a charter vessel, passengers should be aware that a charter’s safety measures might differ compared to those on a passenger vessel, according to Dougherty.  

The nuances of the law allow for vessel owners to rent out their vessel in a recreational status to a charterer and 12 of their guests. This type of rental does not require a traditional Coast Guard inspection as it does not fall under the “passenger-for-hire” category. As such, the public can unknowingly board a vessel that is operating without the required paperwork and or proper equipment.  

On the opposite side of the spectrum, vessels carrying passengers-for-hire have more stringent requirements than a vessel used solely for recreational purposes. Requirements include a credentialed captain and crew, adherence to drug and alcohol regulations, safety inspections, personal flotation devices and ring buoys, and firefighting equipment, as well as any required state regulations. 

The Research Before Renting tool simplifies these rules for the public, the Coast Guard, and partner agencies. The goal is for all parties to easily determine the type of rental vessel or charter and verify safety items onboard to determine whether the rental is operating safely and legally.  

Why should the public care?  

In addition to the risk of injury or loss of life, passengers could forfeit their payment for the charter if law enforcement terminates the voyage due to illegal charter operations. Additionally, passengers who knowingly give false statements to law enforcement officers may be subject to personal fines and prosecution.  

Passengers who take the survey and discover they are on an illegal charter should report the charter through the Coast Guard Investigative Services (CGIS) Tip Form to help aid in Coast Guard enforcement efforts.  

How can this tool help Coast Guard members?  

Research Before Renting is already being used in Chicago to help train BOs and other assisting government agencies. If a chartering operation is suspected, BOs can use the tool to quickly determine chartering status and legality. Ault explained that the tool gives BOs additional information when they call the command center or their local investigating officers. The tool could also help any maritime enforcement official who is trying to learn about different types of charters if they don’t deal with charter vessels on a consistent basis.