In recent months the U.S. Coast Guard has been cracking down on charter boat captains without the proper licensing.
The Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel license is designed for anyone carrying a passenger for hire on open water and can carry up to six people on a boat.
A Masters Operator of Uninspected Passengers Vessel license entitles boat captains to carry up 49 people on the water. Charter captains have been required to have the proper licensing since the 1980s, but according to Chief Warrant Officer John Hoesli of the U.S. Coast Guard, it has not been enforced on a regular basis.
“Normally we only find something if there had been an accident, but we are starting to be able to go out and find people with the increased manpower we have,” Hoesli said.
Hoesli said part of the reason for the crackdown is the Coast Guard is receiving inquiries from charter boat captains asking that the law be enforced.
“We are receiving a lot of phone calls from captains who have their license and believe something should be done about those who don’t because they went through the time to get it,” he said.
Hoesli said boating accidents across the country have also brought the law to light.
Two local charter boat captains — Brian Barton and Brad Whitehead of Muscle Shoals — were unaware of the law requiring them to be licensed to operate their guide businesses. Barton, who opened Brian Barton Outdoors in July 2011, runs catfish charters. In June, he received a call from the Coast Guard alerting him to the law.
“The phone call shocked me the most,” he said, “We were hearing that the Coast Guard was cracking down on it so I started lining up some classes. Then the warning letter really gave me a scare so I knew I had to get this done.”
Whitehead, 36, received the same notice and knew he had to get his license immediately.
“I really didn’t understand why I needed to get a license,” Whitehead said. “In the back of my mind I wondered what if something happened on the water — what would I do, so I decided to take the classes to get the license.”
Penalties for not having the proper license can be stiff — up to a $27,500 fine and five years in prison.
Hoesli said having the proper license is more than just because it’s a law.
“It’s a safety issue on the water,” he said. “If there is an accident, and I have to go out and investigate the situation, insurance companies and lawyers will get involved, If there is a situation where someone’s to blame and the mariner does not have a license, then you could be in a civil court with the family involved,”
There are two ways to become licensed. Charter boat captains can travel to Memphis, pay $200 and take the Inland Navigation Rules test, or they can attend classes at a cost of $1,600. At the end of the classes, the same Inland Navigation Rules test must be passed.
Hoesli said the classes are worth the cost because “they teach you everything you need to know rather than reading the book yourself.”
“I have heard a lot of people say it was worth the time and money to take the classes,” Hoesli said.
In August, Barton and Whitehead attended the True Course Captain’s school at Blue Water Creek in Rogersville. The course spans nine days and involves eight hours per day of classwork. Both did the additional work required to receive their masters license. The total cost was more than $2,000. They were among 10 people to pass the test and were the only two to receive their masters license.
“The first couple of days I was ready to get out of there because that was the first time I had to do school work since high school,” Whitehead said.
Hoesli said he doesn’t know how many guides are operating in the area, but estimated the majority are unlicensed and possibly even unaware they need to be licensed.
Barton, though. is glad he became licensed.
“I was extremely honored to receive my license because it took a lot of time to achieve it,” Barton said. “Even though it cost a lot of money, I’m a strong advocate of getting your license and taking the classes because in the end you’re responsible for someone’s life out there.”