CHARLESTON, S.C. – By now, most South Carolinians are aware that on August 21, a large swath of the United States, including Charleston, S.C., will experience a total solar eclipse – the first to touch the U.S. mainland since 1991. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Office of Field Operations, and its maritime law enforcement partners at Charleston seaport remind recreational boaters that although the water’s a great place to witness the eclipse, there are many safety and legal issues for boat masters and passengers to consider.
In Charleston, CBP works closely with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). USCG has been reminding boat masters to follow boating safety and navigation “Rules of the Road” and to file float plans via the USCG smartphone app to make it easier and more efficient for USCG and local law enforcement to respond to maritime emergencies. They’ll also be on the lookout for unlawful charter operations. Vessels engaged in carrying paying passengers in U.S. waters must be operated by a master holding a valid USCG Merchant Mariner Credential and the vessel must be certified by USCG as meeting applicable safety requirements. Vessel operators and owners not in compliance with regulations are subject to significant civil and criminal penalties.
“With anticipation and excitement for the historic Eclipse passing through the Charleston area, the Coast Guard wants to highlight the importance of safety and preparedness for those enjoying the waterways here in the Low Country,” said CDR Nick Wong, Deputy, Sector Commander, USCG Sector Charleston.
Coupled with USCG’s concerns, which will be amplified by the expected influx of “eclipse tourists” to the S.C.’s waters, are CBP’s concerns with enforcing safe and compliant behavior by foreign vessels.
In anticipation of the eclipse, Charleston CBP officers are stepping up patrols to ensure that pleasure boat masters are following federal laws regarding reporting direct arrival from a foreign destination, and that masters of foreign vessels are reporting their movements in U.S. waters and filing entry and clearance paperwork, when applicable.
“As the nation’s border security agency, Customs and Border Protection needs to know who and what is entering the U.S. at all times,” said Robert Fencel, CBP Charleston Area Port Director. “Enforcement of our pleasure boat regulations balances our interests in welcoming navigators of foreign vessels to visit our waters with ensuring these mobile, often live-aboard conveyances are accounted for and are not engaging in activities that could economically harm legitimate U.S. commercial charterers or threaten national security.”
Additionally, the masters of foreign vessels are generally not permitted to charter their vessels, i.e. to offer to transport paying passengers in U.S. waters. Unlike USCG-documented vessels, foreign pleasure vessels are not regulated by USCG. If one is used to transport paying passengers, there’s no assurance that passenger safety won’t be compromised by uncertified masters operating potentially unsafe vessels. Foreign vessels also present complex questions of liability in the event of an accident or dispute over payment, due to their lack of compliant commercial status in U.S. waters.
Another increasingly common issue CBP detects and deters among foreign vessel operators, and one which will receive heightened scrutiny in the lead-up to the Eclipse, is non-U.S. citizens presenting vessels they own and operate as “U.S.” vessels due to their state registration. Any pleasure boat majority-owned by a non-U.S. citizen is not eligible for USCG documentation, and considered a foreign vessel for CBP purposes. Most states require pleasure vessels to obtain registration and pay fees if the master keeps the vessel in the state’s waters for the majority of a calendar year, but that state registration has no bearing on CBP’s view of the vessel as “foreign.” Owners of these vessels, commonly U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents or long-term tourists, must still report vessel movements in U.S. waters and file entry and clearance paperwork to remain compliant with CBP.
CBP’s Office of Field Operations is the primary organization within Homeland Security tasked with an anti-terrorism mission at our nation’s ports. CBP officers screen all people, vehicles and goods entering the U.S. while facilitating the flow of legitimate trade and travel. CBP conducts inspection operations and intercepts currency, weapons, prohibited agriculture products and other illicit items at U.S. ports of entry nationwide. View CBP Snapshot to learn some of what CBP achieves “On a Typical Day.”