No, you can't order up an Uber boat on the South Carolina coast. At least not yet. But enough captains for hire are out there — legally and illegally — to alarm the Coast Guard.
Federal, state and local marine patrols have stepped up inspections and education efforts, and are responding to several reports per month of commercial passenger boat violations, Coast Guard investigator Lt. J.B. Zorn said.
The violations include captains working for hire without licenses, vessel inspection or insurance issues, as well as carrying too many passengers or not having enough safety equipment.
Because of the problem, the Coast Guard now patrols the inland lakes of Moultrie, Marion and Murray where they have jurisdiction but haven't often been seen in the past.
The seriousness of the issue was borne out earlier this month when the Coast Guard ordered boat captains in Myrtle Beach to prove they were validly licensed when they carried parasailing passengers who were injured during the trip. Coast Guard Captain J.W. Reed characterized any violation as a significant risk to public safety.
The concern has ramped up as the numbers of tourists and residents grow and people look for ways to get out on the water cheaper than the hundreds of dollars it costs for a licensed charter.
"It's a concern locally and throughout the country," said Zorn, of Coast Guard Sector Charleston. "The majority of (for-hire) vessels are licensed and doing it right. We're making a push toward eliminating illegal hires."
The officers are wrestling a beast with a lot of tentacles. There are captain rentals, boat rentals, boat-sharing clubs, even private boat owners with an eye toward putting money in their pocket when someone wants to get out on the water badly enough.
The custom has long been established as beginning with chipping in for gas if a boat owner takes you along. There's no clear line at what point ponying-up becomes payment.
"I've seen a few people take people fishing for a lot of gas money," said David Yates of Yates Sea Charters, who runs a HOBA, or "Hop On a Boat Anywhere" app similar to Uber, to put customers in touch with captains for hire.
To carry passengers for hire requires both a commercial license and a federal captain's certification. The Coast Guard limits it to six passengers at a time unless the boat is able to carry at least 100 tons, essentially a yacht or a ferry, and the captain holds a license for that class of vessel.
It was a big reason why Charleston Private Yacht Charters began offering the motor yacht Kismet two years ago. The private parties who show up usually range between eight and 15 people, said owner Dustin Ryan. That boat is licensed to carry more than 20.
"The more passengers you carry the more money you can make," he said.
Yates thinks that "6-pack" rule isn't fair with today's mid-size boats designed to handle more passengers.
"I tell you, everybody who comes down (to charter a HOBA trip) has at least eight people," he said. When he shows them smaller Carolina skiff-type boats and tells them they have to rent two, he said, "They go, 'What? This ain't nothing like Uber.' My people get mad when a Carolina skiff shows up for $375 per hour."
The rules create their own loopholes, Yates said. "Bareboat" charters, for example, are allowed more passengers. You rent the boat, take responsibility for insurance and have someone drive it for you. But that person can't be the boat owner. So boat owners "share" boats, taking over to pilot for each other while the profit is pocketed.
With that sort of market, Uber might not be far off. The company launched its first daily Uberboat operation in Croatia last year. It's operating during special events on the East Coast, but South Carolina waters don't seem to be on its immediate agenda.
"Boat rides are not currently available through Uber in South Carolina," the company's public relations department said in a statement to The Post and Courier. "UberBoat in other cities has been offered on a short-term basis, such as around the Cannes Lions Festival and Miami Art Week."
If Uber does come, they'll apparently have plenty of company on the water. More than 500,000 boats are now licensed in South Carolina, and that number continues to rise.
"The problems always amplify themselves when we see an influx of people, tourists, people coming in from out of state," said S.C. Department of Natural Resources Sgt. Angus McBride.
Other factors could exacerbate it. Bob Murray runs The Carolina Girl charter boat capable of carrying 150 passengers. He's about to lose the Stono River marina slip where he moors. The new owners are building condominiums and selling the slips with the homes, he said.
Murray and other licensed commercial captains are getting kicked out of dock spaces as some marinas convert to residential operations, he said. For-hire boaters operating under the radar sneak away with some of that business, he said.
"That's exactly what's going on," Murray said. "If you say the word commercial, nobody will let you in their marina."
DNR now checks for Coast Guard requirements on boats its officers stop that "blip our radar" as commercial operations, and alerts the Coast Guard if they are found, McBride said. Marine patrol officers saw a sharp increase in violations a few years back when the Coast Guard changed its captain licensing requirements.
"We're aware (the violations) are still going on," he said.
Passengers hiring captains or vessels have a right — and should — ask the captain to see a valid Coast Guard merchant mariner’s credential, as well as a state registration, Zorn and McBride said.