But, as this week's New Times feature reveals, many of the boats being offered for charter are illegal, with captains who either are unlicensed or ignore passenger-capacity limits for their vessels. The consequences can be tragic — last spring, a 25-year-old man was run over and killed by the unlicensed captain of the Miami Vice, who later tested positive for cocaine.
"There are layers of defense built into the federal requirements to protect the public, and as you remove those layers, you become exposed," says Eric Christensen, a former Coast Guard captain who's now on the staff of the Passenger Vessel Association. "Then you have a situation like the Miami Vice."
So, how can you sort out legitimate charters from the illegitimate ones? Authorities and charter associations say there are a few things you should do:
- Before reserving a boat, ask the captain for the reference number of his merchant mariner credential — the license the Coast Guard requires for boat operators to carry paying customers. You can verify it through the Coast Guard's website. You'll also need the captain's last name.
- If you didn't check ahead of the day of your rental, ask to see the captain's merchant mariner credential before leaving the marina. It has to be carried at all times.
- If your group has more than six people, ask to see the boat's certificate of inspection (again, do this before you leave the marina). This is required for boats carrying at least seven paying customers and shows that the vessel has been Coast Guard inspected. It should be visibly displayed.
- For small groups, the boat's owner should hand you the keys to the boat, not climb aboard to operate it himself. On these "bareboat charters," renters serve as captains and take on all liability. You can't have more than 12 passengers onboard.
- Don't lie to authorities. Several illegal operators have tried to avoid being busted by asking passengers to lie about having paid.
- Contact the Coast Guard if you come across anything suspicious.
"It's kind of like an airline pilot," says Capt. Bob Zales II, president of the National Charterboat Association. "You wouldn't jump on an airline with somebody that just flew around on a little plane."