Rethinking a boat trip after the dive boat fire? Here are questions to ask

A marina in Dana Point.
(Dirk Dallas)

Authorities say it’s too soon to know exactly what went wrong in the catastrophic fire early Monday that killed 34 people aboard the diving boat Conception off Santa Cruz Island, but safety lapses may have played a role. If you’re considering a boat or ship excursion, experts say you can boost your chances of a safe trip by asking questions and checking sources listed in this article.

The thing to remember is that when you step aboard a vessel, “you are leaving the safety of land,” said John Higgins, harbor master for the Ventura Port District and a 23-year Harbor Patrol veteran. “You are putting yourself in a vulnerable position.

“You can’t dial 911 and somebody gets there in three to five minutes the way they do on land.”


The best way to stay safe, Higgins said, is to be vigilant when evaluating a commercial boat or ship, and be doubly vigilant — especially about the weather — if you’re going out on a recreational vessel with a friend, family or an acquaintance.

Ask these questions

If you’re going out on a commercial vessel, Higgins said, “the key things really are understanding where you’re going, what the distance offshore is and working with reputable companies. Reputable companies all go through an annual Coast Guard inspection. Their vessels are documented. The captains are licensed.”

If you’re standing on the dock and deciding on the spot, ask to see the vessel’s certificate of inspection, which will tell you when it was last inspected and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard requires commercial vessel operators to keep a valid certificate of inspection aboard and accessible.

But you can learn much more if you do a little studying at home first.

Once you know a vessel’s name, you can check its history and details through a U.S. Coast Guard database known as the Port State Information Exchange. To start, click on “PSIX Vessel Search,” then type in the vessel’s name. If you happen to know what nation’s flag it sails under, that will narrow the search.

In some cases, the database can tell you a lot. For instance, if you search for the ship Carnival Horizon, you’ll see that it was built in 2018, sails under the Panamanian flag, is 1,062 feet long and received its most recent Coast Guard Certificate of Compliance (good for a year) on May 18.

If you click “summary of Coast Guard contacts,” you’ll find an investigation activity report showing the death of a passenger by natural causes on July 6. (That’s not unusual on big cruise ships like the Carnival Horizon, which holds close to 4,000 passengers, many of them seniors in fragile health.)

But Coast Guard records may not tell you much about smaller vessels. That’s why it’s wise to be alert in scanning the web and eyeballing the vessel on the dock.

“What does their website look like?” Higgins asked. “Do they have uniforms? Are the vessels visually in a good state?”

Higgins also suggested that consumers browse a company’s reviews on Yelp, Travelocity and TripAdvisor, and steer clear of “go-out-on-my-yacht” offers on Craigslist or similar informal for-sale sites.

If you’re uncertain about a company, Higgins said, it can’t hurt to call the local Harbor Patrol and ask whether the company is a known entity.

Some other questions to ask: How old is the company and how much experience does it have with this itinerary? How much experience do the captain and crew have, and how long have they been with the company?

What about recreational boats?

In the case of the Santa Cruz Island dive boat fire, the Conception was a commercial vessel, inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard and permitted by the National Park Service.

But recreational vessels far outnumber commercial ones in the U.S. And most boating deaths and injuries happen on recreational vessels.

In a recent Coast Guard report on recreational boating accidents in 2018, the agency counted 633 recreational boating deaths nationwide for the year. That was a 3.8% decrease from 2017.

Among the Coast Guard’s findings:

▶In cases where the size of the boat was known, eight of every 10 boaters who drowned were aboard a vessel less than 21 feet long.

▶In cases where cause of death was known, 77% of fatal boating accident victims died by drowning.

▶In cases where life-jacket usage was known, 84% of those who drowned were not wearing a life jacket.

▶In 19% of deaths, alcohol was listed as a leading contributing factor.

In California, the state parks system’s Division of Boating and Waterways regulates vessels used by recreational boaters on the state’s rivers, lakes and marinas yearly, about 2.6 million vessels. The agency’s safety requirements vary by the size and type of vessel, but all motorboats are required to carry life jackets, and every child younger than 13 must wear a life jacket when not in an enclosed cabin.

The agency also publishes a set of safety guidelines known as “ABCs of California Boating” and offers boating safety classes.

If you’re a passenger on a recreational vessel, Higgins said, look at the weather forecast with your route in mind, “The weather is the most common thing that can make a trip very unpleasurable or even deadly,” Higgins said.

Make sure there are life jackets for everyone, a fire extinguisher, a marine radio and a membership with an organization that can give commercial towing assistance, if needed.

But your captain is crucial too.

Given all that can go wrong, “it’s crazy to think that somebody could just buy a boat and drive it without any training,” Higgins said. But until 2018 that was true in California.

State law generally requires that boaters be at least 16 years old to operate a vessel with a motor of more than 15 horsepower. Until 2018, California had no specific certification or license requirement for recreational operators of motorized watercraft.

Now the state is phasing in a program that requires boat operators to pass a safety exam to earn a required California Boater Card. As of Jan. 1, the requirement applies to boat operators 25 or younger. In 2020, the age threshold increases to 35 years old; in 2021 to 40 years old; and so on.

The phase-in continues through January 2025, at which point every adult recreational boat operator will be subject to the requirements that include the safety exam and California Boater Card.

But there are many exemptions. Anyone operating a rental vessel, for instance, is exempt from needing a Boater Card.