NEWPORT BEACH — The U.S. Coast Guard admonished a Newport Beach Harbor commissioner's private company last week for appearing to offer holiday bay tours without proper certification, officials said Monday.
Commissioner Ralph Rodheim's Balboa Boat Rentals offered narrated nightly tours of the bay's lighted boats and homes. But his tour boats aren't certified for commercial charters, and his company doesn't have a city charter operator permit.
A vocal critic of large charter boats, Rodheim has said some entertaining ships are too large and noisy for the bay. He is leading a Harbor Commission subcommittee that might push some of the largest charter ships out of the harbor using new laws.
Lt. Cmdr. Randy Waddington, chief of investigations for the U.S. Coast Guard's Los Angeles-Long Beach section, said investigators were searching for online promotions for unlicensed charters. They noticed Balboa Boat Rentals' "Holiday Lights Harbor Cruise" aboard a 21-foot Duffy electric boat.
"Up to 10 passengers will enjoy a 2 hour narrated cruise past fabulous homes, yachts and landmarks decorated for the holidays," the company's website says.
If a boat has more than six paying passengers and a hired captain is behind the wheel, the vessel would have to be inspected and certified by the Coast Guard. Its captain would also have to have a certain license.
Waddington said that Balboa Boat Rentals' narrators were planning to drive the boats, so they would qualify as captains. His unit approached Rodheim and explained the rules.
"We were able to prevent an illegal charter," Waddington said.
Rodheim denied that his employees were planning to steer.
They will only narrate while clients drive the boat, he said Monday.
His nightly tours were scheduled to start Monday and last through Dec. 30.
"We're not doing the driving. We're not chartering. It's just like a boat rental," he said.
Rodheim added that he now plans to have licensed captains narrate, just to be extra cautious.
Balboa Boat Rentals has a fleet of small Duffy electric cruisers, small sailboats and powerboats.
But when a passenger pays someone to captain a boat, Waddington said, it's considered a charter, and both Coast Guard and city regulations take effect.
An expensive and time-consuming process, Coast Guard boat certification requires safety precautions for firefighting, lifesaving and stability. Charter operators have to pay the city a fee per passenger and provide a certain amount of parking.
Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller said that Rodheim had recently applied for a new permit, but his application didn't mention charter operations.
"We should just clear it up to make sure we are on the same page," Miller said. "Clearly this week, we were not."
During the boat parade season, when demand for boat parties is especially high, Coast Guard investigators pay special attention to illegal charters. Legitimate operators sometimes even add smaller, uncertified boats to their fleet illegally, Waddington said.
"The economic incentive is pretty great," he said.
Waddington's investigators prevented three potentially unauthorized holiday charters, he said, including Rodheim's.
They also boarded one boat during the Christmas Boat Parade, which ended Sunday, and determined it was operating without proper certifications.
Such violators face several civil penalties, he said.
In Balboa Boat Rental's case, Waddington said that he wasn't completely comfortable with the narrators, even if they won't be driving. That arrangement might fall under a "bare boat charter," arrangement, he said, which has its own set of regulations.
"It's a legal grey area," he said.
Rodheim, for his part, said he's not sure if anyone is going to book the cruises, anyway. With a rainy Christmas Boat Parade, and rain in the forecast through Wednesday, prospects aren't looking great.