Uninspected Virgin Islands boats less than 24 meters (78.7 feet) in length are now allowed to carry as many as a dozen passengers within the Virgin Islands and to international ports, but not to another port in the United States, under rules announced Friday by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The regulations announced Friday were based on the the bill, passed by Congress in December, exempting uninspected Virgin Islands boats less than 24 meters (78.7 feet) in length from the current limit of six passengers.
Charters to the British Virgin Islands from St. Thomas and St. John are fine under the new rules, but if a boat captain wanted to take the charter boat with as many as a dozen passengers on board to Miami or other points north, it would not be allowed.
The change comes under the Howard Coble Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014.
The change is expected to revitalize the territory’s boating industry and bring back to St. Thomas boats that now operate in the BVI, where uninspected boats have been allowed to carry as many as 12 passengers.
Boat captains who want to travel in international waters will have to get additional certification if they don’t already have it. According to the news release, vessel operators who intend to take international voyages are reminded that they are required to hold a merchant mariner credential with an officer endorsement as master as required by federal regulations. If they are only qualified as an operator of uninspected passenger vessels, they can’t go on international voyages.
Mariners with only an endorsement as an operator of uninspected passenger vessels may carry between seven and 12 passengers when operating an eligible uninspected passenger vessel entirely within the waters of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Kelly Kiernan, a member of the V.I. Marine Economic Council and a member of the territory’s yachting industry, said boat captains who operated in the BVI already met the certification criteria indicated by the Coast Guard in its Friday news release. The difference is that now they are picking up passengers in St. Thomas instead of Tortola.
“It’s the ease of guests not having to take the ferry to Tortola,” Kiernan said, adding that guests get to start their charter sooner.
Until the change in the law, passengers arriving at Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas used up valuable vacation time getting themselves to the Tortola-based charter boats.
Kiernan also said oat captains who were not certified and with boats that weren’t compliant to carry 12 passengers are now in the process of getting that paperwork completed.
“They’re now more motivated,” she said.
The press release noted that boats that want to carry between seven and 12 passengers must comply with the requirements established by the United Kingdom Code of Practice for the Safety of Small Commercial Motor or Sailing Vessels. The code for motor vessels is commonly known as the Yellow Code. The Blue Code is for sailing vessels.
According to the Coast Guard, vessels must be in compliance with either the Yellow Code or the Blue Code. To verify that compliance, vessels must be examined by a certifying authority listed within the Blue or Yellow Code.
The operator must maintain a small commercial vessel certificate issued by a certifying authority under the Blue or Yellow Code and keep it on board.
Equipment requirements and frequency of examinations associated with these codes differ from existing U.S. requirements for an uninspected passenger vessel. The Coast Guard recommends that any owner or operator seeking to utilize either of these codes become familiar with the requirements and frequency of inspections for the code applicable to their vessel.
It is the responsibility of the vessel owner or operator to ensure their vessel is maintained and operated in compliance with all applicable U.S. laws. When carrying between seven and 12 passengers as an uninspected passenger vessel in the U.S. Virgin Islands, vessel owners and operators must also ensure their vessel is in compliance with the appropriate Blue or Yellow Code and carry documentation attesting to an examination of compliance.
Vessel operators carrying more than six passengers can also choose to do so by meeting the requirements as an inspected small passenger vessel.
All owners or operators of U.S. flagged uninspected passenger vessels pursuing certification under this law are requested to notify the Coast Guard of their vessel name, hailing port, length, tonnage, approved passenger capacity, owner name and contact information once a certificate is issued by a certifying authority listed within one of the codes. Providing this information of certified status under one of the codes may serve to reduce the possibility of operations being interrupted by Coast Guard officers seeking verification of legal carriage requirements.
Vessels operating in St. Thomas can send email notification to Marine Safety Detachment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vessels operating in St. Croix can send an email notification to Resident Inspection Office in St. Croix at email@example.com.
Anyone wishing to report illegal passenger vessel operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands can contact the Marine Safety Detachment on St. Thomas at 776-3497 or Resident Inspection Office in St. Croix at 772-5557.