Mauricio Alvarez first met the Coast Guard when officers wrote him a citation aboard the luxury mega yacht Miami Vice. He didn’t have the captain’s license he needed to man the 91-foot vessel for a group of paying customers. Yet, just three weeks later on April 1, the 49-year-old captained another charter with seven people.
He had no formal training, he later admitted to investigators. So, before powering on the boat motor after some of the group took a swim, Alvarez didn’t think to check if everyone was back on board. He turned on the engine and backed up the massive boat.The propeller sucked up a passenger, the water below the boat turning a deep red.
It’s been just over a year since another boating fatality and allegations of a negligent captain triggered outrage — a Tampa Bay charter boat employee and student from China died after jumping into Gulf waters from over-packed charter the Jaguar. But area operators say the problem hasn’t improved.
Murky Waters: Chartering the wrong boat can have tragic consequences
Frustrated and worried more lives could be lost in boat casualties, they’ve created a coalition to fight against illegal operations and push for stricter penalties against violators. The latest Florida death just enforced their existing fears.
"Illegal charters… hurt our industry and now they’re hurting people," said Corey Hubbard, the group’s vice president and business developer at Hubbard’s Marina on Madeira Beach.
"People are literally dying out on the water (and) consumers don’t know the difference between legal and illegal charters, which endangers tourism, the lifeblood of our region," she said.
Members of the new Tampa Bay Passenger Vessel Association may spend thousands of dollars keeping their boats up to code, but they share waters with operators who don’t.
Even with heightened awareness following the deaths, local operators and Coast Guard investigators are still seeing boats that have too many passengers, no licensed captains and/or have never been inspected by the Coast Guard.
On a weekday morning last month, the Coast Guard’s Sector St. Petersburg held an "industry day" in an auxiliary office on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa. A crowd of three dozen — owners, operators and crew members — packed inside, as officers, inspectors and advocates went over common missteps and problems.
"What happens when there is a casualty on an illegal charter boat?" Eric Christensen, a retired Coast Guard captain and spokesman for the national Passenger Vessel Association, asked the crowd. "Does the headline necessarily say ‘illegal’?"
Some in the crowd chuckled; others sneered. Legitimate operators say customers see "death" and "charter boat" and assume they’re all dangerous. "It doesn’t bode well for our industry," he said.
The average consumer doesn’t ask to see a captain’s license or know that a boat must have proof it has been inspected if it has six or more passengers.
Christensen, whose Virginia-based group is not affiliated with the budding Tampa Bay vessel association, has traveled to a couple dozen such industry days at different sectors across the country. Illegal charters are always a hot topic.
Operators fighting against illegal charters point to a sting last summer in Chicago as a success story. The Coast Guard there partnered with Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
They boarded 39 boats and wrote 22 citations for illegal operations over a two-week span. The accompanying state officers issued 14 misdemeanors, including charges of obstruction of justice.
The Coast Guard took the extra step of putting cited vessels under "Captain of the Port Orders," which could turn fines into felony charges and possible jail time if violators were caught continuing to operate illegally.
The civil penalties — usually just a few thousand dollars — are often written off as the cost of doing business. It’s jail time that makes illegal boaters listen, Christensen said.
"The Miami Coast Guard did board the Miami Vice, and it was illegal," he said at the meeting. "And they still kept operating until they killed someone." Alvarez, the Miami Vice operator, was indicted on charges of negligence last month for the death of 25-year-old Raul Menendez.
The Jaguar deaths are still under investigation.
Read more: Lawsuit claims charter boat captain was improperly licensed, negligent at time of two deaths near St. Pete Beach
At their first meeting last week about a dozen captains and charter company owners — all new or prospective members of the local vessel association — gathered on a docked yacht at Clearwater Marina.
They discussed letters they were preparing to send state officials and brainstormed ways to assist the Coast Guard.
They want an operation similar to the one done in Chicago. They want repeat offenders to face more than cash fines.
"There has to be a united law enforcement operation," Hubbard said to the group, as she suggested the new coalition could help foster those relationships.
Already, Coast Guard officers have trained members of the Pinellas Sheriff Office’s marine unit on spotting illegal charters. Twice in the last six months, a deputy found illegal charters he was able to pass on to Coast Guard investigators.
"When it comes down to people, associations, coalitions or whoever wants to work with the Coast Guard, and have ideas floated, we’re always interested," said local Coast Guard investigator Lt. Nate Herring.
Ultimately, he said, it would be up to sector commander Capt. Holly Najarian to issue orders for stiffer penalties like those in Chicago. "It’s definitely not off the table," Herring said.
But Tampa Bay has challenges Chicago doesn’t face — more boaters, a massive coast line without a major choke point and a year-around season.
Marc Redshaw, a former Coast Guard inspector who’s working with the new Tampa Bay association, said the Coast Guard alone doesn’t have enough resources to handle the problem. Since he retired in 2000 and began his own inspection business, the number of vessels in the area has exploded without a matching increase in inspectors.
"At a boots-on-the-ground level, they’re trying their best," Redshaw said of the local Coast Guard. "A lot of the guys are putting in extra hours; there’s really no off duty for them. "They just can’t be everywhere at once."
Contact Sara DiNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale
For more information on the Tampa Bay Passenger Vessel Association, please visit: tbpva.com