Aye, Aye Captain!





     Next summer that is how you may need to address our towboat drivers or should I say towboat Captains? The U.S. Coast Guard met with a group of outfitters on the Gunflint Trail earlier this month to inform us of the rules governing UPV’s and navigable waterways.
     In order to operate a UPV on Federally navigable waterways a person must be licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. “A UPV(Uninspected Passenger Vessel) is a vessel that carries six passengers or less for hire on federal navigable waterways and is regulated by the Coast Guard.” Anyone who is transporting passengers for hire whether or not there is a motor involved must be licensed. 
     This ruling has been in the books for some time but it has never been enforced in our area. The Coast Guard wants to ensure the safety of all paying passengers on their waterways because it is their duty to do so. We want to keep our passengers safe while transporting them via towboats on Saganaga Lake. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a fatality or accident involving tow boats in the Boundary Waters or on the Gunflint Trail. We keep a careful eye on the weather, train our employees and insist all passengers wear their life vests and remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop.
     Everyone wants to provide safe passage for customers on the water. The only difference is the Coast Guard is insisting we have a licensed boat operator. I’m over 21 years of age so if I was a fishing guide or wanted to be a tow boat driver this summer I could obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential known as a TWIC. I could enroll in a certified drug and alcohol inspection program, make sure I am 1st Aid and CPR certified, get a physical and then take a Coast Guard approved class so I could get my license. This may take some time but I have nothing else to do this winter anyway. The cost to take the class is normally around $1300.00 and the other costs average around $250.00. 
     The U.S. Coast Guard sent two really nice men to come and talk to us. They listened politely and tried to understand all of our concerns. They are even willing to work with us by creating a limited or restricted license. They understand travel on Saganaga is somewhat limited when compared to the route options on one of the Great Lakes or on the ocean. The amount of boat traffic in the BWCA is limited too by the quota system and barge and freighter traffic isn’t possible so it’s a lowered risk out where we’d be boating. They could even lower the licensed age requirement to 18 even though you can drive a vehicle when you’re 16. I think there is more risk in driving a vehicle than in boating but the U.S. Coast Guard can only worry about the waterways. They might even be able to work with the cost of the license class so it isn’t too much of a burden on us.
     All of this doesn’t sound too outrageous if a person wanted to make a living as a Captain. Deep sea fishing captains, catamaran tour guides and other such people probably make good money in a day’s work. It’s their only job, their life and probably their love so it’s worth the investment of both time and money. Unfortunately operating a tow boat service on Saganaga is just one of the many services we provide. It isn’t a very lucrative business to say the least. 
     The USFS regulates the number of towboats on Saganaga and no one can operate any more towboats than what they were using in 1993, or some year close to that. There is quite a bit of expense involved in operating a towboat service including boat, motor, and gas, a dock for loading and employee time. Some times the boat goes out to American Point with 2 passengers on a one way tow for $40/person or $80 for the trip. This involves an employee loading the canoe and gear and usually involves waiting for every last minute thing the group remembers they need. On average a towboat driver spends 40-60 minutes loading and waiting for guests to get ready. The ride out takes about 20 minutes depending upon how much gear there is, and then it takes about 10 minutes to unload the boat and another 20 minutes to return. In all a towboat driver spends a minimum of an hour and a half of time for $80.00 gross revenue. I’m not a mathematician but I can quickly see there isn’t enough profit to be able to add $1500.00 of training for each of our towboat drivers. We usually have 4-5 people trained to operate towboats so we can cover early morning tows, late afternoon pick-ups and allow for days off.
     This type of regulation enforcement would make a difference in the price of a tow to say the least. If we were willing to invest that amount of money in a person so they could be licensed chances are it would be for less than 3 months of work as most of our staff attends college. When would these students have the time to complete the training? That’s another question we do not have an answer for. 
     I was hoping if we didn’t talk about this issue then it would just go away. I thought we could maybe fly under the radar and the U.S. Coast Guard would forget there were UPV’s in the BWCA with no TWIC’s traveling to Canada with an I-68 and an RABC but not certified in CPR or signed up for a DAPI audit.
     Unfortunately it looks like we’re S.O.L. so send out an S.O.S. we need help!