Coast Guard Charters

Coast Guard personnel check charter Captain Brandon Hartman's paperwork during a license and certification check in Charleston Harbor on Aug. 31, 2018. The Coast Guard is stepping up patrol efforts throughout the Southeast, targeting illegal charter operations that mislead or misrepresent themselves to customers and who operate without license or certification. Brad Nettles/Staff

The three men fishing in the boat backed away against the port beam. The Coast Guard patrol boat nosed in on the starboard side and three guardsmen came aboard.

Along the Grillage — an undersea ledge rife with fish at the mouth of Charleston Harbor — the people holding rods on three other boats had their eyes on the flashing blue lights. The stop looked serious; you could tell by the news cameras.

Commercial passenger boat violations have the U.S. Coast Guard and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources stepping up inspections and education efforts. Officers will be out in force over the Labor Day holiday.

On Friday, they took The Post and Courier along to give a heads-up to boaters.

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Coast Guard Charters

Charter Captain Brandon Hartman returns a shark to the water after one of his customers caught it in Charleston Harbor on Friday, August 31, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

With the steady increase of tourists and new residents who want to get out on the water, the so-called "Uber for boats" industry has taken off in the busy Charleston waters. The rising number of boat or passenger trips for hire have made the issue a focus of law enforcement.

Fishing charters, dive trips, pre-wedding parties, your buddy who pockets more than gas money — it makes no difference, said Coast Guard Ensign Phillip VanderWeit. They all need to carry state and federal certifications and licenses, safety gear and other required equipment. 

Passengers hiring captains or vessels have a right to — and should — ask to see valid credentials.

"If you're paying someone to go off in their boat, they have to have it," VanderWeit said.

The problem has become widespread enough that the Coast Guard now supplements DNR patrols on the inland lakes of Moultrie, Marion and Murray where the service has jurisdiction but hasn't often been seen in the past. 

It's not just a matter of sticking to the rules, it can mean life or death. Several violations are reported or cited per month, the officers say. Violations include everything for the wrong grade of life jacket to overloaded boats. 

The stepped-up patrols are taking place throughout the Southeast. The seriousness of the issue was borne out in April when an unlicensed captain in Florida ran over and killed a passenger on a for-hire luxury yacht as the passenger swam behind the boat.

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Coast Guard Charters

Coast Guard personnel keep an eye on charter fishing boats during a license and certification patrol in Charleston Harbor on Friday, August 31, 2018. The Coast Guard is stepping up patrol efforts throughout the Southeast, targeting illegal charter operations that mislead or misrepresent themselves to customers and who operate without license or certification. Brad Nettles/Staff

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.

Between state and federal violations, the fines can range from $155 to $10,000 and loss of a captain's license.

But the custom has long been seen around the docks. It can begin with having passengers chip in for gas if a boat owner takes you along, then having them pony up more. Charter rentals can cost hundreds of dollars, and there always seems to be someone around ready to pocket a cheaper rate, never mind the legalities.

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Coast Guard Charters

Coast Guard personnel prepare to board charter Captain Brandon Hartman's boat to check his paperwork during a license and certification check in Charleston Harbor on Friday, August 31, 2018. The Coast Guard is stepping up patrol efforts throughout the Southeast, targeting illegal charter operations that mislead or misrepresent themselves to customers and who operate without license or certification. Brad Nettles/Staff

Not so surprisingly, a large number of the violations reported come from calls from other charter boats.

"That guy is affecting the bottom line of every other captain," said DNR Sgt. Gregg Brown. 

"Most of these guys are safe. They are good business people and good conservationists," VanderWeit said.

Off the Grillage, Capt. Brandon Hartman of Charleston Charter Co. has his boat and his paperwork in order. One of the three passengers aboard already has tossed a line back in and is wrestling a red drum. On the patrol boat nearby, the two officers have paused a moment to watch the fight until the fish is pulled in.

"Nice size," Brown and VanderWeit said.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.