Bigger waistlines, could pinch bottom line for boats

Mladen Rudman
The party boat American Spirit is seen here earlier in July with a full vessel of passengers.

Captains operating charter, scuba diving and snorkeling, or dolphin cruise boats now have to comply with a federal regulation that bases passenger capacity on the statistic that an average fare now weighs 185 pounds rather than 160.

The result is lower maximum passenger capacity for vessels small to big and, maybe, less profit for the businesses.

Party boat American Spirit owned by Capt. Jim Westbrook saw its “stability” rating drop by almost 18 percent. Originally legally able to carry 304 people, the vessel is now temporarily licensed – a final stability letter is pending – to allow 250 passengers.

Though American Spirit is currently used as a party boat licensed to carry fewer than 250 fishermen because the weight of their gear and other conditions have to be considered to minimize the risk of capsizing, Westbrook said the new maximum capacity was expensive to determine and could affect his bottom line if he had to re-purpose the boat, or sell it.

“It lost a substantial amount of capacity,” he said. “I don’t know what the future of my vessel will be. … You want to maintain the largest stability letter possible.”

Westbrook had engineers test American Spirit’s stability in Panama City. The cost was $15,000.

Party boat Destiny’s passenger capacity was recalibrated using another option, a math formula.

Its capacity dropped by nine people, which Capt. Chris McConnell said might have a noticeable impact on ticket sales during Spring Break and mid-summer’s red snapper fishing season.

“There’s always people standing (at the ticket booth), whether the boat is full or not,” he said.

Emerald Coast Scuba Inc., which operates boats Aquanaut and Down Under, saw passenger capacity drop from 22 to 19 and 49 to 41, respectively.

“We kind of got a double whammy because they also reduced our occupancy based on the gear that divers use,” said the scuba shop’s Anna Schmitz. Typically, a diver brings two tanks, each weighing approximately 45 pounds, and a diver’s bag that might be loaded with as much as 50 pounds of gear.

During June, July, and August, according to Schmitz, there were often enough scuba diving fares to fill her boats when they could carry the pre-185 pounds per person capacity. Instead, the shop would opt to carry fewer people but offer more trips.

Schmitz added that boat Down Under also is used for snorkeling and fireworks cruises, which are popular. As a result, losing capacity to carry eight more people will likely pinch the bottom line during the busiest stretch of tourist season.