Ask me how to pick a safe boat when chartering a captained vessel in a place where I’m unfamiliar with the boats (that’s most places), and I always give the same reply:
Make sure they can carry seven or more passengers.
It’s my best short answer to a complex question about how to make a safe choice when going to sea aboard a boat that isn’t yours.
A boat that can take six or fewer passengers for hire is known as a “six pack,” and though the captain must be licensed, the rules for these vessels can be summed up as such: “It floats and was designed to carry people.”
If so inclined, a six-pack operator can change the oil in the engines between every five years and never, run emergency drills with the same frequency and repair holes in the hull with Bondo. Add that seventh passenger, however, and the regulations and rules to protect your safety are significant.
Before anyone calls for my head, I know scads of six-pack operators whose boats are as safe, if not safer, than many fully regulated passenger vessels I’ve been aboard. However, on average, regulated vessels get into trouble far less often than non-regulated vessels. There are a lot of reasons for this, and one is frequent required inspections.
But what should you look for, and how often should you inspect?
There are pros who inspect boats, of course, but the rules, guidance and inspection checklists used by the Coast Guard to ensure passenger vessels are safe are available to the public. Consider using the Coast Guard’s tools to inspect your vessel (while it’s out of the water).
When Coast Guard inspectors visit small passenger vessels for annual inspections, they carry a checklist. The list is referred to as a “CG 840 Book,” named for its document number. These 840 books are available online here along with other great resources, and the one you’ll want to use is the “Small Passenger Vessel T.”
Before you dig in, know that most of what is contained in this inspection book will not apply to your vessel. “T-Boat” regulations are extensive, and the checklists include items that rarely pertain to most regulated vessels. Don’t be confused by this. Go through the list, and where an item pertains to your boat, check it out and make sure the item is working the way it should.
The Dry-dock Section
Regulated small passenger vessels are required to be hauled and inspected every 18 to 60 months, depending on a number of factors. For most boaters, I recommend running through the 840 dry-dock section at least every couple of years. Knowing what to look for is important, and there is guidance for that.
If your hull is built of fiberglass — as most boats are — you’ll want to look at NAVIGATION AND VESSEL INSPECTION CIRCULAR NO. 8-87. I know, 1987 is way back in the evolution of fiberglass hulls, but the the Coast Guard’s guidance for inspecting these boats is still valid. There also is guidance for inspecting aluminum and steel hulls.
For sailors, there is guidance for inspecting rigging, as well. This is an excellent resource, and I recommend you read it.
As you work your way through the CG 840 Book, two things will likely come to mind:
1. You are not doing enough to take care of your boat.
2. You may never want to own a regulated small passenger vessel. It is a lot of work to run a boat that can take seven or more passengers. But I’ve seen many cases where a boater would have avoided real trouble by inspecting like a pro when their boat was on the hard.
If you are hauling out this year, use some of that downtime to take a good check-listed look at your boat through the Coast Guard’s lens. I guarantee you’ll find at least one way to be safer when you're back on the water.