FORT MYERS BEACH, Fla. – At the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Fort Myers Beach, a trip out on the water is serious business: boots on, guns loaded and officers ready to patrol.
The NBC2 Investigators were given exclusive access onboard a Coast Guard boat as the crew faced one of their biggest problems: illegal charter boats.
“The cost of doing this illegally is going to be grave,” investigator Hector Melendez told NBC2.
As Melendez explained, any time people pay a captain to take them out on the water, it is considered a charter trip. This can include fishing trips and sunset cruises, among other things.
“‘Inspected’ vessels are bigger boats that are designed to carry more than six passengers. These are heavily regulated and inspected annually by the Coast Guard. ‘Uninspected’ vessels or ‘Six-packs’ are generally smaller boats that can carry up to 6 passengers — but no more,” said Melendez.
In either case, captains who charter a boat must be trained and licensed through the Coast Guard.
“If your captain does not have a Coast Guard license and cannot produce this red book — do not get on the vessel,” Brian Knapp, chief investigator for USCG Sector St. Petersburg, explained.
“Death is the worst-case scenario,” Melendez said of illegal charters. “You got a person who’s not licensed because he’s not trained, and he goes out and does something that he’s not supposed to be doing and kills a passenger — that’s the worst-case scenario.”
While on patrol with NBC2 cameras rolling, one boat, in particular, caught the crew’s eye – the ‘Carolina Daze.
As officers boarded the boat for a safety check, the NBC2 investigators could hear everything through a microphone worn by Melendez.
“What you’re telling us right now doesn’t make sense,” Melendez is heard saying to the captain who, at first, claimed his passengers were just friends on board.
Melendez pushed for the truth.
“Come on man — really? Come on. Just be straight with me. How much did they pay to be on board your boat?”
Eventually, the captain fesses up — he was paid $1,000 for the trip.
But that wasn’t the only problem. While the captain did have a license, he was carrying eight passengers — two more than the maximum allowed for his type of charter.
“You understand what the issue is right now, right?” Melendez can be heard saying to the captain. “You overloaded your vessel — and that’s bad news.”
Not just bad news — but also illegal. The Coast Guard ordered the captain to take the boat back to shore.
The very next day, the NBC2 Investigators tracked down ‘Carolina Daze’ and Captain Ron Hodgson.
Unlike with the Coast Guard, he was honest with us right away.
“I was breaking the law. I deserve the punishment that I get,” Hodgson said. “All I can say is — I’m guilty. I shouldn’t have had eight people on my boat. That’s the bottom line.”
But Hodgson insisted his passengers were safe and went on to question the Coast Guard’s regulations. He believes a boat like his can safely carry more than six passengers.
“I think it’s time to update their whole system,” Hodgson said. “I was hoping when I took the [Coast Guard] class that I’d actually learn more about safe boating. Well, I didn’t. I learned how to take a test, and the questions on the test were old, old, old.”
In a response to Hodgson’s comments, Knapp told the NBC2 Investigators the Coast Guard tests are updated every five years.
He also said passenger limits on boats like Hodgson’s are about much more than just the size of the vessel.
Knapp said all regulations are ultimately put in place to ensure the safety of the passengers.
“Uninspected passenger vessels advertise everywhere. They’re on social media, they’re in newspapers, they’re in flyers and marinas,” Knapp said. “Buyer beware.”
The Coast Guard will suspend or revoke a captain’s license if he or she is caught operating illegally. Captains can also face fines in the tens of thousands of dollars, typically for a second offense.
Hodgson told the NBC2 Investigators he’ll be following the rules next time.
“I’m not taking more than six people on my boat. That’ll never happen,” Hodgson said.
Knapp reiterated passengers need to make sure their captain has an official license before boarding a boat. He said people could also ask the captain to send pictures of his or her license before a trip is scheduled.
If you suspect a charter boat is breaking the law, the Coast Guard asks you to call them at 727-824-7506 or 813-228-2191 ext. 8169.
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