May 24, 2001 — The U.S. Coast Guard and V.I. charter yacht captains and clearinghouses are working together to try to custom fit the national "six-pack" rule on the local level in a manner that would help the local marine industry regain some of its former economic glory.
Although many crewed luxury yachts were designed to carry up to 12 overnight passengers, they are classified under the 1993 Passenger Vessel Safety Act as "uninspected small passenger vessels" while operating in U.S. waters. To be cleared to carry more than six passengers, a vessel covered by the act must obtain a certificate of inspection which verifies compliance with its provisions.
Susan Chandler, executive director of the V.I. Charter Yacht League, said representatives of the local chartering industry and Coast Guard officials met recently to discuss ways to make it possible for larger crewed charter boats to obtain certificates via "equivalencies" to certain specifications in the federal inspection manual.
A release from the VICL, cleared in advance with Coast Guard authorities, quoted St. Thomas-based marine safety officer Lt. Kevin Smith as saying the objective of talks between the industry and the Coast Guard is to identify "acceptable safety equivalencies" and/or impose operational restrictions eliminating associated risks, so as to enable uninspected charter yachts to become inspected and certified vessels.
Chandler noted that some inspection safety requirements were written to apply to passenger ferries, not luxury yachts. An example, she said, is the requirement for a water-tight collision bulkhead on a vessel. Retrofitting a yacht to meet this standard is unworkable, she said: In an Irwin 68, a common larger charter vessel, "a collision bulkhead would have to be installed halfway through the forward stateroom, so it would lose the capability of taking more than six passengers."
Another example, Chandler said, is the requirement that orange SOLAS (international "Safety of Life at Sea" regulation) life rafts be carried on deck, as they are on ferries. "There is no room for those on the decks of luxury charter yachts," she said.
Coast Guard officials made it clear that what is being considered are ways of complying with the safety act requirements, not ways of getting around them.
Smith told the Source Thursday, "We're looking at bringing this segment of the industry into compliance with existing inspected regulations."
Lt. Cmdr. Dirk Greene of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office in San Juan said Thursday that the ball is now in the yachting community's court. Boat owners and operators need to "take a look at their boats, compared with what's in the regulations, and get back with the Coast Guard and actually identify a worklist" of suggested equivalencies. Each type of boat "will have to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Greene emphasized: "We are doing nothing different from what's allowed in the regulations. This is no special deal." He said although he is not personally aware of it, similar efforts may be under way in other major charter yachting areas in the country. His office has not been approached on the issue in Puerto Rico, he added.
"What makes the Virgin Islands situation unique," he said, "is that the yacht owners came to the Coast Guard and said 'What can we do?' … A lot depends on how the boat was designed, how it's operated and crewed, whether it operates on open or partially protected water. The more you're exposed to risk, the better equipment and design there have to be."
Similarly, the inspection manual might require a particular piece of equipment for nighttime operation, but a boat operated only during daylight hours might be deemed to have an equivalent level of safety.
Greene said how soon changes may come about "all depends on how quickly the boat owners get back to the Coast Guard and say 'What do you think?' It's going to be a communications thing." He said some matters will have to be "looked at and concurred with" by the Coast Guard district office in Miami and perhaps by headuarters in Washington, D.C.
Chandler said the cooperation of the Coast Guard has been gratifying. "Everyone is feeling extremely optimistic," she said. "I really feel we’re taking the proper steps."
Delegate Donna Christian Christensen said she also is encouraged by the cooperation. The effort could be a way for the territory to recapture some of the charter business lost to the British Virgin Islands a decade ago, she said in a release Thursday.
Christensen has introduced legislation in Congress to get the U.S. Virgin Islands exempted outright from the six-pack rule, in an effort to reverse the decline of the territory's charter industry. Revenues reportedly dropped from more than $85 million in 1988 to the current $15 million a year after the six-pack rule took effect.
Most of the territory’s chartering business was lost when charter companies and vessels moved their operations to the British Virgins, where SOLAS provisions permit up to 12 passengers on the same vessels that the U.S. regulations limit to six.
Coast Guard officials in Washington have said they are hesitant to support Christensen’s bill for fear of compromising the margin of safety for charter passengers and crew.
"While I understand that more work has to be done between the Coast Guard on St. Thomas and Washington, D.C., to identify acceptable safety equivalencies to the six-pack rule, I am encouraged that there has been movement in a positive direction," Christensen said.


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