Anyone who has gone on board a passenger boat on the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers has seen a sign or heard the captain explain that the boat is “Coast Guard approved.”
That approval is based on inspections made by active-duty and reserve members of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment St. Paul under the direction of Lt. Matt MacKillop.
“We inspect passenger boats that take more than six paying passengers,” MacKillop said. “If it is more than six, they are required to be inspected by the Coast Guard.”
MacKillop said his crew often inspects boats in Stillwater, Hudson, Taylor’s Falls, and the Twin Cities. They also have a few boats to inspect in North and South Dakota. His area of responsibility is from the Twin Cities to U.S. Lock & Dam No. 10 at Guttenberg, Iowa.
The Marine Safety Detachment in St. Paul, along with similar offices in Peoria and Davenport work under the control of a larger Coast Guard unit in St. Louis.
“Once a year, we go on the boats and do a safety check,” MacKillop explained. “We look at their records and make sure that their licensing and documentation are good. We look at their lifesaving equipment, their firefighting equipment. We get them underway to do drills, if needed. We do a thorough safety check of the boats to make sure it is safe for people to go on board.���
Because of the barge traffic on the Mississippi River, the St. Paul division of the Coast Guard must inspect some of the barges that enter and leave the Twin Cities.
“With waterfront facilities such as the refinery in St. Paul Park and Flint Hills Resources, people that transport oil or oil products need to have inspections,” MacKillop said. “We don’t have to inspect companies that just do grain. We are more concerned with the transfer of products that could cause harm to the environment.”
Barges carrying grain and other non-dangerous materials are inspected by the Coast Guard in St. Louis, according to MacKillop.
He added that there are mobile facilities, boats that serve as large gas trucks to fill up tow boats, that need regular inspections of their equipment and safety records by the Coast Guard .
Beginning in July 2018, the Coast Guard was also charged with inspecting tow boats longer than 26 feet. MacKillop said that included area companies such as Brennan Marine in La Crosse and Upper River Services in St. Paul.
Although the Coast Guard is actively involved in river rescues on the lower Mississippi River, that service is handled differently in the St. Paul district, because there are not enough active-duty Coast Guard members stationed in the Twin Cities to operate a rescue boat at all times.
“For rescue, we rely on our partners, Ramsey County and Hennepin County sheriff’s departments,” MacKillop said. “They are the ones that respond to water emergencies.”
The Marine Safety Detachment St. Paul also does investigations if there is a boating accident or a boat runs aground.
According to MacKillop, the boat inspections are “the big part of what we do up here. We want people to feel safe when they board passenger boats.”