North Idaho’s surging wave of party cruises, fishing charters and parasailing rides is commanding the attention of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Safety inspectors from Seattle will be here throughout May and June. They decided to return after short visits last year, when they found many commercial boat operators who didn’t understand - or ignored - boating regulations.
In 1994, seven violations led to warnings or penalties.
For example, Lake Coeur d’Alene Cruises was fined after it lashed two boats together during an “oldies” dance cruise but provided no safe passage between them. On Lake Pend Oreille, a captain’s license was suspended after she turned the tour boat Sandpoint over to an unlicensed pilot while she served drinks to passengers.
Despite occasional warnings and penalties, inspectors emphasized that their goal is to educate, not punish.
“The purpose is not to take people’s livelihood away from them,” said William Whitson, investigations chief in the Coast Guard’s Puget Sound division. “We realize there’s growth in tourism up there. … We want to make sure anyone taking advantage of the boat tours and the parasailing is afforded the safest operation possible.”
While they’re here, two inspectors will spend one day each week patrolling Lake Pend Oreille or Lake Coeur d’Alene. The rest of the time they’ll visit marinas and hand out informational pamphlets, according to Chief Warrant Officer Russell Berg.
“We’re not doing an Inspector Clouseau, hiding behind a bush,” he said.
Inspectors will check for safety equipment, such as life vests and fire extinguishers. They’ll make sure cruise and charter boat operators have captain’s licenses.
To be licensed, operators must pass a physical exam and written test, and prove their knowledge of the lake where they do business.
There’s a separate “six pack” license for operators of boats that carry six or fewer passengers. Those include parasail operators who tow high-flying thrill-seekers behind their boats, and people who give water-skiing and sailing lessons.
Last summer, inspectors even found a Jet-Ski rental operator who needed a license, Whitson said. The operator was using a three-person Jet-Ski to ferry several customers at a time to a floating platform on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Capt. Sandra Archer got in trouble with inspectors when they found she had turned over control of the Sandpoint to her husband, David Jones. He was not licensed.
Jones, owner of Lake Pend Oreille Cruises, has since gotten a license.
Archer is unhappy about having her license suspended for a year. “What I have to say, you couldn’t put in a newspaper,” she said. But her husband downplayed the penalty, comparing it to a traffic ticket.
“Just look at the record of cruise boats around here,” said Jones. “They’ve been operating in the area over 20 years, and never had a fatality, never had a bad accident.”
Fred Finney, general manager of Lake Coeur d’Alene Cruises, also noted his company’s “impeccable safety record” and had only good things to say about the Coast Guard.
“They’ve been a great asset to us in making it safe for people,” he said.
Inspectors reported that the cruise lines on both lakes failed to give a safety orientation to passengers and hadn’t given pre-employment drug tests to employees.
Pend Oreille Cruises didn’t have the required second trained deckhand on board when the number of passengers exceeded 25. There was a similar staffing problem on Lake Coeur d’Alene Cruises.
Two of Lake Coeur d’Alene Cruises captains were sent warning letters. The company paid $2,000 in fines.
Half of the fines resulted from lashing the Mish-ah-nock to a smaller cruise boat for an August party cruise.
There was no gangway with handrails so people could safely go from one boat to another. There was nothing to keep all 718 passengers from moving to one side and causing the boats to tip dangerously, Berg said.
The cruise line is working on a plan to lash the boats together that will satisfy the Coast Guard, its manager said.
Berg praised the company’s cooperation. He also stressed that he saw no violations last year that put anyone at immediate risk. In his 13 years of inspecting, that hasn’t always been the case.
“I’ve been in Louisiana where sight-seeing boats had all the passengers on one side in alligator swamps.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MEETING The Coast Guard will conduct a meeting to explain federal boating rules at 7 p.m. May 5 at the Kootenai County extension office, 106 Dalton Ave.