Coast Guard looks at rating system for charter boats

Posted: Tuesday, January 25, 2000

CORDOVA (AP) - An initiative proposed by the U.S. Coast Guard would set up a rating system that informs customers on the safety of charter boats commonly hired for fishing or pleasure trips along the Alaska coast.

Lt. Cate Holdren said the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Valdez has been discussing the Five-Star Rating System Program with local charter operators.

There are more than 2,000 vessels that can carry up to six passengers for hire and do not need to be inspected by the Coast Guard. Often, this lack of control is the cause of accidents that higher safety standards could avoid, Coast Guard officials said.

Last year the Coast Guard rescued 200 people involved in three accidents in Alaskan waters, including those passengers of a large cruise ship that was grounded near Juneau.

Last July, two Coast Guard helicopters rescued the passengers of a Homer charter boat that sank near the entrance to Cook Inlet.

The captain made an emergency call from his cellular telephone when his boat began to take on water. A Coast Guard rescue team reached the boat within one hour, hoisting the captain, a crew member and six California tourists all of whom suffered only mild hypothermia.

But, Holdren said, the operator would have been legal even if he had on board no means of communication at all.

Current regulations require very minimal safety equipment on uninspected vessels, she said, with requirements ``almost akin to recreational vessels.''

The captain of a charter boat can legally take up to six passengers on a fishing trip having on board just life jackets and a fire extinguisher.

Without imposing new requirements, the Coast Guard program would give charters a rating based on their safety standards.

``It is a nonregulatory intervention on uninspected passenger vessels,'' Holdren told the Cordova Times.

The requirements to obtain the five stars will be to have on board life rafts, secondary communication systems, emergency locator beacons and, possibly, an emergency training certification for the crew, Holdren said.

``We are still in the process of finalizing the criteria and establish what does it take to have five stars,'' she said.

Dave Janka, who operates Auklet Charter Services in Cordova, said he welcomed the initiative.

Safety measures on his boat are already much higher than those required and comply with the requirements of scientific research groups he often takes out in Prince William Sound, he said.

Holdren said that, for the most part, charter operators are very safety conscious.

``They know they work in a unforgiving environment,'' she said. ``But the idea behind the program is 'let's add safety to what we sell.' ''

She said she believes that once the project is established, safety on charter boats will be increased and the market will start determining what level of safety is needed to be competitive.

Lt. Cmdr. John Bingaman, of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in Juneau, said his office proposed the program a month ago during a meeting in Valdez that was attended by the local charter boat association, the harbormaster and other operators.

``So far I have received a couple of e-mails from people who wanted to know a little bit more about it,'' he said. ``Generally, we have had non-negative feedback.''

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