Revisiting 6PAX restrictions key to industry growth

Boating is a lifestyle that everyone should have the opportunity to experience. The mission of our industry is to share the boating experience with as many people as possible, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, or background. It is widely agreed upon by people within the industry that one of the largest hurdles impeding that is affordability. When this topic comes up most people think about the rising prices of new boats, ownership costs, maintenance costs, etc. While these are certainly valid challenges to affordability, there is another less discussed issue that directly impacts affordability and accessibility. That issue is the paid passenger laws, specifically the 6PAX restrictions for uninspected passenger vessels.

In 2014, more than 88 million adult Americans participated in boating, translating to more than $37.6 billion dollars in total spending.[1] While that number is impressive, the percentage of people who know how to safely operate a boat is only a fraction of that number. The majority of participants went out with friends and/or family members who own a boat, passively enjoying the boating experience. And then there is a segment of participants who went out on a charter or rental with a hired captain.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the latter segment. At my last company, Boatbound, we always talked about the importance of getting people from “zero to one,” or more simply, having their first boating experience. If a person doesn’t have any family or friends who have access to a boat, a chartered option certainly makes sense. It gives people a relaxed first experience, so they can enjoy the time then decide if they want to make boating part of their life.

However, due to the aforementioned 6PAX restriction, any charter on an uninspected passenger vessel under 100 gross tons, which is the vast majority of registered boats, with at least one paying passenger is limited to just six passengers.[2] For those less familiar with this law, in short, it states that all uninspected vessels under 100 GT (the majority of registered boats), carrying passengers for hire can have no more than six passengers. It doesn’t matter if you’re chartering a 50-foot Viking that can EASILY accommodate more than six passengers or a 15-foot Boston Whaler, the number is the same.

So how does this impact affordability?

Let’s say the cost for a four-hour charter on that 50-foot Viking is $1,000. Split 6 ways (not including tax, fuel or gratuity) that comes out to ~$166 per person. If you could take 12 passengers, which a boat of that size could certainly accommodate, that price is cut in half to ~$83, making it significantly more affordable.

To cite direct examples from my experience at Boatbound, a significant percentage of renters inquired about captained or charter boats. Of these requests, the majority were for groups larger than six. For occasions such as small company events, family outings, birthday parties, or even bachelor/bachelorette celebrations, the six passenger restriction limits available options, ultimately driving people elsewhere, away from boating.

There are a couple other reasons why these laws need to be re-evaluated.

  1. Due to these restrictions, many charter companies choose to utilize loopholes by offering “demise” or “bareboat” charters, allowing the charterer to have 12 passengers. The difference here being that the charterer “selects their own captain.” The dangerous part is that many charterers don’t fully understand the additional liability risk they assume, as they essentially become the owner of the boat for the term of the charter.
  2. If I want to rent a boat without a captain, be it a pontoon or yacht, I’m allowed to take up to 12 guests. In many states, all I need is a driver’s license and credit card to do this. I can basically have no experience, and still take out more people than if we had a licensed captain. Which to me begs the question, wouldn’t it be safer to have a licensed, professional captain at the helm? After all, isn’t safety the primary reason for laws like this?

The origin of paid passenger laws can be traced back to the mid-19th century revolving around maritime trade. The legislation was last addressed over two decades ago in the Passenger Vessel Safety Act (PVSA) of 1993. However, in late 2014, as part of the Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation Act of 2014, Chairman Shuster (R-­PA) changed the code to substitute 12 passengers for 6 passengers each place it appears in section 2101(42),[3] which enabled U.S. owned uninspected passenger vessels operating in the U.S. Virgin Islands to carry up to 12 passengers provided the vessels meet certain safety requirements. Primarily, this was done because many of the USVI charter boats were relocating to the BVI’s to circumvent the 6PAX restriction and leverage the international charter standard, which allows for up to 12 passengers. By making this monumental change, Chairman Shuster made USVI based charter boats competitive again and setup the framework for larger reform.

I’m not necessarily proposing we push to extend Chairman Shuster’s code change to all U.S. coastal and inland waters, but…the outdated regulation is something that needs to be re-evaluated. There could be numerous secondary benefits as well. Lower costs means more charters, which means more work opportunities for captains. More boat utilization means more maintenance, repair and service they need, keeping boat yards busy. There would certainly be a positive windfall effect.

For the boating industry to grow we must find ways to engage a younger and more diverse group of people. With affordability being one of the most cited reasons individuals don’t go boating, addressing this regulation could help get more people over this hurdle and out on the water.

[1] 2014 NMMA Statistical Abstract

[2] Requirements for Uninspected Passenger Vessels.

[3] 46 USC 4105: Uninspected passenger vessels.

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