A slow dance under the stars. An osprey circling in the sun.
With such delightful distractions, it’s a safe bet that cruise boat passengers aren’t thinking about frayed fire hoses or the number of safety flares within the captain’s reach.
Chris Marcy thinks about those things, full-time.
“A ship like this has its own fire department, its own sanitation department, its own power company,” he said Thursday as he inspected The Coeur d’Alene.
“My job annually is to make sure those systems are operating properly.”
The lieutenant is one of three Coast Guard officers on a two-month operation in North Idaho. He and Chief Warrant Officer Russell Berg are here from the agency’s safety office in Seattle. They’re being helped by Mark Cleveland, a reserve officer from Spokane who’s training as an inspector.
This is their longest-ever visit to the Panhandle. It was prompted in part by the growing number of cruise boats, fishing charters and parasail operations on Lake Coeur d’Alene and Lake Pend Oreille.
They will do nearly 30 inspections, which are required for boats that carry more than six paying passengers.
The Coeur d’Alene is licensed to carry 407 people. Cleveland’s task on Thursday was to make sure there were an equal number of good life vests on board.
With the help of the crew, he worked his way through a huge, orange stack of flotation devices. He was on the lookout for shrunken foam rubber, a sign of lost buoyancy.
Marcy has picked up life vests kept in damp storage spaces, only to have the rotted fabric fall apart. A shortage of good vests is among what he calls “no-sail” items on the boat inspection check list.
“That means they’ll have to stay tied up until they fix it,” he said.
Equipment was looking shipshape on The Coeur d’Alene. Even the engine compartments were spotless, with not a sign of the oil leaks that can alert an inspector to problems.
Marcy doesn’t always find such good conditions, even though boat owners have time to prepare for the inspectors.
“If it’s that bad when they knew we were coming,” Marcy said, “you wonder what it’s like when we’re not there.”
Boat owners and captains are usually cooperative about the inspections, said the Coast Guard officers. One bone of contention this year is the annual inspection fee, which is being levied for the first time.
“It kind of took me by surprise,” said Fred Finney, manager of Coeur d’Alene Cruises.
“It kind of took the industry by surprise,” said Berg, although he noted there had been a public comment period.
The fees stem from a declaration by Congress that agencies start charging user fees. The money doesn’t go to the Coast Guard, though. It goes into the federal government’s general fund.
Annual fees for boats operating in North Idaho range from $545 to $975 for the biggest ones, including The Coeur d’Alene.
Commercial boat operators also must fork over $180 for a license that’s good for five years. Renewals cost $80 to $135.
People can be pretty disgruntled when they’re told to get a license, Berg said. “Generally, they didn’t know they needed one.”
If you’re out for a spin in the family boat this May or June, you won’t have to worry about the Coast Guard stopping you to do a safety check. A local officer might do that, though.
The inspectors are making some patrols with Kootenai County and Bonner County marine deputies so they can understand each others’ operations, Berg said. But on these inland waters, “the Coast Guard is not in the business of recreational boating at all.”
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