Coast Guard to stop inspecting permanently moored vessels

As a result of new federal rules, the term ''permanently moored vessel'' has become an oxymoron.

The U.S. Coast Guard recently specified that it will inspect vessels only if they serve a transportation purpose on water. Beginning in 2011, permanently moored vessels – such as riverboat casinos and museum ships – will no longer be inspected.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized this distinction in Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co. in 2005. The Coast Guard, however, had continued with the inspection of many craft that don't transport anything.

On May 11, the Coast Guard published the Notice of Policy in the Federal Register. Previously the Coast Guard defined a craft as "substantially a land structure" and removed from navigation as a permanently moored vessel. This new policy redefined such objects as permanently moored craft (PMC).

A PMC is a "craft of design and mooring arrangement such that they do not have a practical capability for use as transportation on water," said Lt. Cmdr. David Webb of the Coast Guard's Office of Vessel Activities, Domestic Compliance Division.

The change in policy will affect PMCs differently in each state.

"The Coast Guard will continue to provide inspection services to existing craft that hold valid Coast Guard-issued Certificates of Inspection until May 11, 2011, to allow the craft to transition to an appropriate inspection program as approved by the state or local government," Webb said in an e-mail. "The entity or agency responsible for inspection oversight varies from state to state."

This has left many owners of PMCs scrambling to discover under whose jurisdiction they fall. PMCs include riverboat casinos, restaurants, hotels and museums such as the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City. A representative of the museum noted the vagueness of who will take inspection responsibility.

"It's a little unclear," said Richard Dorfman, master of Pioneer, a 102-foot schooner at the South Street Seaport Museum. "The city has been hovering around here and there. Nobody much comes aboard at all. The Economic Development Corp. (EDC) is responsible for the piers in New York and they have been around … requiring permits and that kind of thing."

While the demise of Coast Guard inspections might seem like one less bureaucratic headache for PMC owners, in some instances it might make matters more complicated. Dorfman said the inspections were relatively stress-free.

"I don't believe (the Coast Guard) came aboard very often," said Dorfman. "Our stationary vessels are really stationary. They don't go anywhere."

For the South Street Seaport Museum, the promise of a new body in charge of oversight brings with it the potential for problems.

"The city is sort of getting in our face now," said Dorfman, "which is sort of a pain."

It remains to be seen if new non-Coast Guard inspections will be more of a nuisance.

"I don't really know if it is more of a hassle," said Dorfman. "The EDC is the most interested party. We work with them for the most part, as far as I know."

Craft owners unwilling to lose the distinction as a vessel may demonstrate their function as a mode of transportation on water by getting their craft underway at least once a year. If they succeed in doing so, the Coast Guard may continue to inspect the vessel for certification.

"The Coast Guard understands that this change may be an inconvenience for some existing businesses that have become accustomed to Coast Guard regulations and requirements," said Webb, "but the Coast Guard cannot compel craft that are not also vessels to comply with vessel inspection law and regulation."

Mac King

By Professional Mariner Staff