Tampa Bay has more commercial passenger boats than just about anywhere in the country.
Under federal law, every boat has to be inspected annually.
But as our I-Team has discovered, that may not always be often enough to ensure passenger safety.
“The Coast Guard's required to come out annually to do inspected vessels,” said U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Gregory Kennerley.
He was part of a crew on the scene Monday morning inspecting a dinner cruise ship in Tampa Bay.
They checked things like the crew's credentials.
“Every employee that they have on their list needs to be drug tested,” said Kennerley.
They also checked mechanical equipment and safety equipment, like locator beacons, life jackets and throw rings.
“It's absolutely crucial to look at all the safety equipment on board,” said Kennerley.
Each boat that carries more than six paying passengers has to be inspected every year.
But the Coast Guard admits they depend on passengers to tell them about concerns between inspections.
“We only have a certain amount of individuals in our area, so we're not able to get out on all 300 passenger vessels at a time, so the passengers are our eyes and ears all the time,” said Kennerley.
A local couple questions how well that reporting system works, after they say they reported concerns about the casino shuttle boat that later caught fire.
That fire resulted in a death and multiple injuries.
The couple didn’t want to be identified, since they are in poor health and taped the calls without the U.S. Coast Guard’s permission.
They shared recordings of their calls with the I-Team.
“It was probably the most unsafe vessel that we've ever been on,” the woman reported to the U.S. Coast Guard the day after she returned from a gambling cruise in September of 2016 .
Before they reached an employee, the phone rang up to 16 times. Then they got busy signals. Then they got hang-ups. And it didn't just happen once.
“For whatever reason, I keep getting disconnected on your phone. I don't know if you're having phone issues,” said the passenger.
“Always,” said the Coast Guard employee who answered the call.
The U.S. Coast Guard inspected the boat, and said it passed with flying colors.
“We're looking out for the safety of the passengers that are coming on board,” said Kennerley.
They say you should always look for an inspection certificate before boarding a boat.
If you suspect a passenger vessel isn’t safe, you can report it by calling the U.S. Coast Guard at (813) 228-2191 then choose option 3 for inspections or option 6 for investigations.
If you need to make a report after business hours, you can call the St. Petersburg Office 24 hours a day at (727) 824-7500.
The U.S. Coast Guard says the local office currently can’t accept complaints via email.
If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.