Miami Party Boats Can Be Lethal

Miami Party Boats Can Be Lethal
Illustration by Michael Campina

When Cesar Meneses arrived at the marina and saw the yacht he'd chartered to celebrate his 24th birthday, he tried to cancel. As a Miami resident, he'd rented boats before. This one, a sleek, 91-foot yacht with its name, Miami Vice, spelled out on the stern in the font used by the famous TV show, looked dirty. It didn't seem ready for Meneses and his friends — five of whom were with him at the marina and a few others who, in typical Miami fashion, were running late — to board for a half-day of cruising Biscayne Bay.

But the boat's owner, a French-accented 30-something named Laurent Marc-Antoine Jean Maubert-Cayla, wouldn't return Meneses' deposit. Instead, he persuaded the group to take the $3,000 charter at a cheaper price of $1,500. Around 4 p.m. April 1, 2018, a sun-drenched, clear-skied Sunday, the Miami Vice set sail with Meneses and his friends, who'd packed bottles of Grey Goose, Patrón, and Hennessy for the occasion. They had decided to start the trip and circle back once the late-comers showed up. "Cesar, it was his birthday. He was ready to get on the water," says 25-year-old Mariah McKenzie, who'd been invited on the trip by a mutual friend. "Sunset was going to come in the next hour. He was like, 'I want to start my birthday.'"

They knew little about the captain, Mauricio Alvarez. If they had, they might not have gotten onboard. Hired after Maubert-Cayla saw him operate a boat just once, Alvarez lacked the license and training the U.S. Coast Guard requires to carry paying passengers. In fact, he had no formal training at all. And, as investigators would later discover, he had a cocaine habit — something Maubert-Cayla knew firsthand. Only three days before welcoming Meneses and his friends onto the yacht, Maubert-Cayla had recorded a cell-phone video of Alvarez snorting a bump of white powder from a small baggie. "The captain takes his vitamins," Maubert-Cayla narrated in French. Alvarez captained a yacht later that day.

Now he steered the Miami Vice through the bay to Monument Island, a small, manmade landmass near Miami Beach. He beached the mammoth yacht, which dwarfed the others on the island, and put down the swim ladder. McKenzie sprawled out on the back of the boat and began recording a Snapchat video. Alvarez leaped into the blue-green water, followed by Raul Menendez, Meneses' best friend. Meneses was quick to join.

When Menendez didn't resurface, the rest of the group clung to the hope he might somehow be OK.

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No one paid much mind when Alvarez climbed the ladder, raised it, and strode to the bow. McKenzie was still looking at her phone. Menendez and Meneses were standing on the swim platform joking that their friendship was so strong that other people might think it was more than a friendship. After a while, they jumped back into the bay.

Then, without so much as a cursory head count, Alvarez started the engine and threw the throttle in reverse. Meneses began screaming. Menendez was pulled into the propeller and vanished beneath the boat. The water clouded with blood. Everyone on and around the Miami Vice became frantic. They pulled up a stunned Meneses, who was in such a state of shock he lost consciousness. When Menendez didn't resurface, the rest of the group clung to the hope he might somehow be OK.

"Maybe it's just his arm; maybe if we move the boat, if we push the boat — it didn't really make sense," McKenzie says. "We were just trying to find a way to miraculously pull him from wherever he was."

The accident that claimed the life of Menendez, a 25-year-old Hialeah native with a close-knit family and plans of marrying his middle-school sweetheart, is the most horrific example of what officials say has become a pervasive problem: illegal charter operations.

Day trips aboard pricey yachts stocked with free-flowing booze and swimsuit-clad revelers are quintessentially Miami. But the general public's lack of familiarity with licensing requirements, coupled with the sharing-economy-era mentality that anyone can make a buck renting out their boat, has created a thriving but risky cottage industry.

"When you are going out on an unregulated vessel with an unlicensed captain, there is the potential for bad things to happen," says Eric Christensen, a retired Coast Guard captain who now serves as director of regulatory affairs and risk management for the Passenger Vessel Association. "And we've illustrated that with some casualties in the last couple of years."

To legally carry paying customers, the operator of a boat must have a captain's license. Getting one is no joke. The U.S. Coast Guard requires documentation of at least 360 days of boating experience and a passing score on a written exam. There's also a background check, a drug test, and a physical exam. Carrying more than six paying customers comes with the additional requirement of yearly vessel inspections. Either way, all licenses must be renewed every five years, and all captains and crew members must submit to random drug testing. All boats must be outfitted with fire extinguishers, distress signals, and lifesaving equipment.

Meeting all of those requirements is expensive and time-consuming. In coastal communities across the country, some operators have decided they'd rather skirt the law and try to avoid getting caught. In Florida, long the nation's leader in boating accidents and deaths, there have been tragic consequences, even before the Miami Vice.

On March 14, 2017, a group of 15 Colorado State University students chartered the 71-foot Jaguar for a sunset cruise in Tampa Bay. They likely didn't realize the yacht, which they'd found online, had not been inspected or certified to carry that number of customers.

Not long into the cruise, Capt. Todd Davis anchored the boat in the Pass-a-Grille Channel. The water was rough, with a rip current warning in effect, but a few of the students jumped in. They would later tell investigators Davis said they could.

After hopping in and out of the water a few times, 21-year-old student Jie Luo grew tired and couldn't fight the current to reboard the boat. A crew member, 27-year-old Andrew Dillman, went after him.

If the yacht had the Coast Guard-required certification, it would have been inspected for lifesaving equipment, and Davis and his crew would have been trained in how to rescue a man overboard. Instead, neither Luo nor Dillman had a life jacket or flotation device, and both were swept out into the Gulf of Mexico. Their bodies were found a week later, after a search-and-rescue mission turned into a recovery.

Luo's and Dillman's grieving families blame Davis and the companies that brokered the charter, Florida Yacht Charters and Azure Ocean Escapes. In a pair of wrongful-death lawsuits, they claim Davis was "improperly licensed and unqualified" to operate the Jaguar. Negligence and inexperience doomed the cruise and caused the deaths, they say.

"Rules are in place for reasons," Dillman family lawyer Jacob Munch told Tampa news station WFLA. "Training is in place for reasons. This is all about passenger safety."

click to enlarge Divers spent days searching for the remains of 25-year-old Raul Menendez. - COURTESY OF MARIAH MCKENZIE
Divers spent days searching for the remains of 25-year-old Raul Menendez.
Courtesy of Mariah McKenzie

On splashy websites with names like "Boatsetter," "Anchor," and "GetMyBoat," thousands of boats are listed like singles in an online dating service. There's everything from a 25-foot "cycleboat" — a nautical version of those group-pedaling contraptions seen careening around tourist towns — to an 80-foot luxury yacht with three wood-paneled staterooms and a captain's cabin. A 37-foot catamaran that falls somewhere in the middle shows a full gallery of bachelorette parties, decked out in coordinating swimsuits and towels, smiling aboard the boat. It also has a rule banning Jell-O shots.

Prices range from $375 to $9,000 per day, with trips available as soon as tomorrow. All it takes is clicking "request to book." Many of the listings tout the exclusivity of the experience as a main selling point — a strategy sure to pay off richly among Miami's status-obsessed locals and pleasure-seeking tourists.

"Our goal is to treat you just like a billionaire luxury yacht owner," reads the ad for a 60-foot Sea Ray listed on Boatsetter. "From the second you step aboard until the second you leave, our guests receive the level of service previously reserved for the privileged 1% of the world."

It's not hard to understand why boat-sharing companies have taken off in the past ten years, raking in millions of dollars and quickly expanding across the United States. Boat owners get out on the water an average of two weeks per year; the rest of the time, their hugely expensive purchases sit unused. Meanwhile, everyone else wishes they had a friend with a boat so they could enjoy the perks without paying ownership costs.

In 2013, Boatbound became one of the first companies to connect the two, likening itself to Airbnb. Six years later, it's been snapped up by competitor Boatsetter, which is now valued at $17 million and headquartered in Fort Lauderdale. And the idea has spread. On websites across the internet, owners advertise boats for charter.

"When the Uber thing came out, people with boats started thinking, Well, gee, if I can rent my car out as a taxi, I should be able to rent my boat out for hire," says Capt. Bob Zales II, president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators and the owner of a Panama City charter fishing company. "You can't just do it that way."

What it comes down to, he says, is that the Uber and Airbnb models don't translate neatly to boating. Adding water introduces a host of factors — wind, waves, and seclusion among them — that don't exist on land. Handling them requires experience and training.

Soon authorities questioned whether boat operators met the requirements for legally carrying customers. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at one point brought on a specialist to comb through listings, according to a 2016 report in the Maritime Executive. The Coast Guard in a 2017 blog post acknowledged that the new technology made legitimate operations more accessible but pointed out that it did the same for illegitimate ones, "which increases the threat to public safety."

The agency then spelled out the law in no uncertain terms: Licenses are required to carry paying passengers; boats that carry more than six paying passengers must be inspected. Any violations should be immediately reported.

To Zales and other above-board charter operators, the reinforcement came as a relief. The agency was finally cracking down.

click to enlarge Raul Menendez was a Hialeah native with a close-knit family and plans of marrying his middle-school sweetheart. - COURTESY OF U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE
Raul Menendez was a Hialeah native with a close-knit family and plans of marrying his middle-school sweetheart.
Courtesy of U.S. Attorney's Office

Weeks before Menendez boarded the Miami Vice, the jet-black yacht and its rogue captain had caught the Coast Guard's attention. Officers stopped the vessel March 18, 2018, for being overloaded with passengers. Soon after climbing onboard, the officers discovered the Miami Vice had no certificate of inspection and Alvarez had no captain's license.

"The passengers on board the Miami Vice informed the boarding USCG officers that Alvarez had informed them to lie to the officers," federal investigators wrote in court documents, "and state that he was their friend and not a paid charter captain."

The Coast Guard issued citations to both Alvarez and TM Yachting Charters LLC, the owner of the yacht, for operating an illegal charter. But Maubert-Cayla, the company's co-owner and manager, continued to hire Alvarez to take paying customers out on the Miami Vice. The website miamivice.biz accepted reservations for the "one-of-a-kind speedboat/yacht hybrid," and each time someone chartered it, Maubert-Cayla pocketed a few thousand dollars. Alvarez, who authorities say took out paying customers about 40 times over five months, made $150 an hour.

After the accident that killed Menendez, the Coast Guard immediately launched an investigation. His distraught friends, giving statements to law enforcement while still in their swimsuits, were stuck on the boat as the sun went down and divers continued to search for remains. Alvarez refused a drug test. He tested positive for cocaine the next day, which his lawyers would later try to explain by claiming he got high following the fatal charter.

"It took the deaths of two young men to get the Coast Guard in gear."

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Investigative reports don't disclose how Meneses found and booked the Miami Vice for his April 1 birthday party. But McKenzie, the sole passenger to speak with New Times about the doomed cruise, says it never occurred to her to question its legitimacy. She was horrified to learn of Alvarez's drug use and lack of experience.

"With it being a 91-foot yacht, I just assumed that it was clearly being occupied by someone who knew what they were doing," she says. "That I was so ignorant to all these backhand things going on made me feel so betrayed — almost embarrassed."

It's left mostly to the customer to distinguish the legal charters from the illegal ones — doing so would require asking to see a captain's license and knowing what it's supposed to look like. Boat-sharing startups such as Boatsetter and GetMyBoat stipulate that users must adhere to Coast Guard regulations, and a GetMyBoat spokesperson tells New Times the company has partnered with maritime-safety firm Boat Ed to ease concerns. Yet the terms of service for both startups state they cannot attest to the accuracy of their listings.

Boatsetter says that it does not attempt to confirm any member's identity or information provided, that it cannot control the "condition, legality, suitability, insurability, or qualifications of any captains," and that it "never approves or endorses any captain." GetMyBoat says that the ability of its members to rent a boat is "solely the responsibility of each user" and that it's up to members to ensure compliance with laws applicable to boat charters.

"A big part of the problem for the public is, the public is normally not aware of what's legal and what's not," says Zales, the president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators. "They're looking for the best bang for the buck. If illegal is a lot cheaper than legal, they'll go ahead and go for it, not really understanding the potential ramifications."

click to enlarge Cell-phone footage shows Capt. Mauricio Alvarez snorting cocaine, prosecutors say. - COURTESY OF U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE
Cell-phone footage shows Capt. Mauricio Alvarez snorting cocaine, prosecutors say.
Courtesy of U.S. Attorney's Office

Catching the bad actors is tricky for the Coast Guard — most are adept at flying below the radar. Some of the sharing startups have even built their business models around unlicensed captains. They do this by claiming to be "bareboat" charters — a type of rental in which the vessel alone is supplied, no crew included. This is complicated by the fact that under the model the startups use, the boat's owner goes along for the rental and acts as captain.

The Coast Guard cried foul on that model in June 2017, when its legal team reviewed the business model proposed by the boat-sharing company Anchor. The company, which had debuted that spring on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, planned to have unlicensed boat owners act as captains of their own vessels. That would not constitute a legal charter, the Coast Guard said in a press release and a legal determination provided to Anchor.

"There's been a lot of speculation because of the novel technology for app-based charter services, not specifically on Lake of the Ozarks, but nationwide," Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Sean Haley told the magazine Government Technology. "There's a lot of these charters. The rules are not new, but the technology is new and novel, and it's forced the Coast Guard to readdress existing regulations with new technologies."

After Menendez's death, Coast Guard officers in South Florida stepped up enforcement. But even boat operators who were busted kept returning to the water with new customers. In one case, a Miami man, Randy Postma, was ordered in August 2018 to stop offering paid charters on his boat, the Golden Touch II, after he was caught carrying nearly 50 passengers illegally. A week later, he accepted $9,000 from an undercover Coast Guard officer for a full-day trip and was arrested on federal charges for violating the order to stop operating the Golden Touch as an illegal charter.

Another Miamian who was slapped with the same warning in October 2017, Seth Gissen, was caught almost a year later with around 50 passengers aboard his boat, No Rules II. Coast Guard officers said they overheard him instructing passengers to claim they were his friends, not customers. Just a week later, No Rules again was cruising the bay with a crowd of people. This time, when officers boarded, sewage from the boat sprayed onto them. "Gissen was standing near the vessel's controls at the time of discharge," noted a criminal complaint filed in August by the Coast Guard, though he claimed it was an accident.

Despite the two earlier warnings, Gissen's attorney, Joel Hirschhorn, claimed his client didn't know he needed a captain's license. Gissen, his lawyer told the Miami Herald, is "a free spirit."

Courtesy of U.S. Attorney's Office

Inside a hushed courtroom in downtown Miami, Maubert-Cayla stood before a judge and sniffled: "I have no words to describe my feeling right now. I'm really, really, really sorry." Running a hand through his shoulder-length mousy-brown hair, the France native stepped away from the lectern. The Menendez family watched in silence.

From the bench, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno called the case "very sad." He sentenced Maubert-Cayla to six months in prison after rejecting requests from prosecutors for a longer stint and defense attorneys for a shorter one. Maubert-Cayla, who will likely be deported to France after completing his sentence, slipped off his belt and suit jacket and disappeared through a side door.

"Have as best of a day as you can under the circumstances," Moreno told the room.

With that early-January hearing, the criminal case over Menendez's death came to a close. Alvarez, who initially tried to flee to Panama, had been sentenced in December to 33 months in prison after pleading guilty to neglect of a ship officer resulting in death; that's a fifth of the time that passenger McKenzie says she thinks was necessary. It appears to be the most serious punishment so far for an illegal charter operator.

"My son did not deserve such a horrible death."

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No charges have been filed in the drowning deaths of the two young men in the Tampa Bay area, but cases against other boat owners are wending through the legal system. Gissen pleaded guilty to violating the Coast Guard's order to stop illegally chartering the No Rules. He was sentenced last month to five years of probation, during which time he is banned from being on or around boats. Postma pleaded to the same charge and awaits sentencing.

Those who have lost loved ones to the covert industry want to see more action taken. Eileene Dillman, the mother of the crew member who died trying to save a passenger in Tampa, is determined to prevent similar tragedies. Munch, her attorney, criticized authorities for not doing more sooner: "It took the deaths of two young men to get the Coast Guard in gear," he told WFLA. Menendez's father also called for stronger enforcement and accountability. In a letter to the judge overseeing Maubert-Cayla's case, he wrote, "I hope that this serves as something so that they can supervise or regulate these supposed marine captains."

McKenzie, who testified against Alvarez in court, has been afraid to get on a boat since that tragic evening on the Miami Vice. She slept for days afterward and struggled with paranoia and anxiety. She ended up seeing a counselor. "It just put me in a daze," she says. "It was really hard to get through a day without thinking about it."

Menendez's parents, meanwhile, have been completely shattered. Approached at the federal courthouse after Maubert-Cayla's sentencing, they declined to talk about their son's death. But in letters to the judge handwritten in Spanish, they detailed their pain. Manuel Menendez described saying goodbye to his "Lito" and never seeing him again "the day that the sky and heavens collapsed on my head." Ileana Menendez told of crying in Raul's bedroom, where the unchanged sheets still smell faintly of him.

"My son did not deserve such a horrible death," she wrote. "How much it must have hurt him all over his body, the destruction caused by that monstrosity of a boat, because that ship is a ship of murder and death."

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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas