Breaking the 12-passenger Rule

14 November 2008 By Alex Scott

There are a number of instances where charter guests have asked a captain to fudge the 12-passenger limit and leave the dock with more than a dozen guests aboard. Some captains flirt with serious legal repercussions by making this concession, which leaves the guests and crew involved with the mistaken impression that the 12-passenger rule is flexible.

Sure, it can be difficult to say no when a charter party arrives with a nanny who was not a part of the original guest count, and it may be tempting to secure a good gratuity by appeasing charter guests with a harbor cruise when they invite extra guests aboard. But before you toy with the idea of blurring the line, you must remember that although it's called a rule, it's actually a law – an international law – and the consequences for breaking it are severe.

Depending on the circumstances of the violation and where it occurs, repercussions can range anywhere from substantial fines for the captain and owner to a possible impact on the captain’s license to voiding the boat’s insurance policy or even seizure of the vessel.

The Premise: The 12-passenger limit is the product of an international convention that defines the line between a private pleasure vessel and a passenger vessel; it delineates private use versus commercial use and determines the subsequent statutes that must be followed. “Unless your yacht is certified as SOLAS and is operating as a licensed commercial vessel, there is absolutely no wiggle room with the twelve-passenger limit,” says Yacht Management Specialist Lynette Hendry.

Guests vs. Passengers: The 12-passenger limit only applies to voyages where payment has been made for the use of the boat. If your boss has a party on board, as long as he hasn’t chartered the boat out to himself and as long as he's paying for every component of the trip, then his guest count is limited only by the number of life jackets and related safety gear on board. But if there's any kind of payment made, the guests are considered passengers and the limit is fixed at 12.

The Dilemma: It can be very difficult for a captain who finds himself on the fifth day of a seven-day charter, arguing with an irate guest who wants friends to come aboard for a dinner cruise on a yacht he has chartered for an obscene amount of money. There are even captains who report they’ve had pressure from a charter broker to concede to such requests. “I suppose they have nothing to lose by trying,” says one captain, “but it’s not the captain’s decision to make.”

The Bottom Line: No captain wants to disappoint a charter guest when he or she is adamant about something – especially if it may affect your gratuity or your reputation with the booking broker – but the law is the law. Shawn Laird, a charter marketing expert with Fraser Yachts, says, “It's a breach of contract if a charter guest asks to leave the dock with even one extra guest.” If the issue arises and the conversation gets heated, Laird says, “It's certainly reasonable to get the charter broker involved. Though it has never happened to me personally, I have definitely heard of this happening and the captain must follow the law. If anything went wrong, the consequences are just too severe, and if any broker were to suggest that a captain try to skirt the issue, then that is a serious violation of ethics.”