Many research projects use vessels other than those operated as part of the UNOLS fleet or even by their own institutions.  Principal Investigators often need a smaller, local or special purpose vessel for their projects and the only way to obtain the use of these vessels is through charter.  There have been several incidents in the past involving scientists employing chartered vessels for their work that have resulted in injury and death.  Sometimes, when there is no inspection and qualified personnel have not carefully evaluated the potential for risk, the charters are carried out several times without incident before an accident or near miss finally occurs.  The purpose of this chapter and Appendix D is to provide a procedure that will help to mitigate the risks involved with chartering vessels for scientific research and educational projects and that will help to ensure that vessels appropriate to the task are employed. This can be accomplished by ensuring appropriate regulations and provisions of the UNOLS Research Vessel Safety Standards are adhered through inspections and a systematic confirmation of a chartered vessels capabilities, outfitting, material condition and compliance with applicable safety standards and regulations.



The chartering institution or their qualified representative must verify that the chartered vessels are in compliance with all applicable federal regulations.


Use the vessel’s letter of inspection to help determine suitability for charter.


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Chartered vessels must be able to prove adherence to applicable federal and international regulations.


When a UNOLS institution charters a non-UNOLS vessel for marine research that is not operated by that institution, the guidelines of this chapter must be followed. The Principal Investigator, institution’s contracting office and the institution’s marine office all have a responsibility to ensure that only vessels that are safe and suitable for a project are chartered.  Institutions should establish procedures, utilizing the expertise of marine operations staff, to ensure that all applicable USCG documentation, inspections and licenses to which the vessel is subject are complete and current.  Particular attention should be paid to the safety, material condition, and crew competency of vessels chartered for oceanographic research.

When funding support from the National Science Foundation, Division of Ocean Sciences (NSF/OCE) is used for the charter of non-UNOLS vessels, the requirements of the RVSS are mandatory.  Projects that use funding support from other NSF Divisions, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), or other federal agencies should follow the requirements of this chapter as a minimum.

This process should take place as early as possible so that any necessary corrections can be made in a timely manner.  The correction of any deficiencies should be insisted upon before entering into a charter agreement.  The overall goal is to ensure a chartered vessel meets the same safety standards expected of a comparable size UNOLS vessel.

If the marine operations staff does chartering, such factors will be taken care of routinely.  The situation becomes more difficult when principal investigators, unfamiliar with marine operations, undertake charters of vessels on their own.  It is emphasized that all institutions should set up procedures which will ensure safe, effective operations regardless of who undertakes a charter.

Chartered vessels that possess a current U.S. Coast Guard, SOLAS or U.S. Navy INSURV inspection certificate have been physically inspected by competent marine personnel and such inspections may be used to satisfy the requirements of this chapter.  A current inspection is one that has been performed within 12 months of the vessel’s charter date.   Certain large projects or those involving international cooperation may require a contract inspection by an NSF approved inspection group, or provide evidence that the vessel follows safety standards comparable to the RVSS.

Small vessels that carry less than six scientists and possess a current U.S. Coast Guard safety inspection performed under the Federal Boating Safety Act of 1971 or the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988 may also satisfy this inspection requirement if these safety requirement are considered sufficient for the expected area of operation and mission by the chartering institution’s marine staff.

Any non-inspected vessel that fails to meet the above criteria, should be physically inspected by the chartering institution’s Marine Superintendent (or equivalent) or other competent marine personnel such as another member of the marine staff, a marine surveyor, marine architect, etc. that the Marine Superintendent might designate.  The purpose of this inspection is to ensure the proposed vessel meets UNOLS Research Vessel Safety Standards and is otherwise suited for the intended purpose.  Appendix D provides a set of guidelines to be used in conducting these inspections.


Collect particulars on the vessel being contemplated for charter so as to have complete data and an understanding of the vessel’s safety and capability.  Data should include vessel description, radio call sign, owner and operator name and addresses, licenses, inspections, surveys, safety equipment, communications equipment, and navigation equipment.  Investigate any information relative to the stability and watertight integrity of the vessel.

Ensure owner has an appropriate Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection or a letter of designation as an Oceanographic Research Vessel or can legally operate as a six-passenger charter vessel. Vessels less than 65 feet in length can carry up to six passengers with a properly licensed master.  Vessels 65 feet and over must be inspected to carry even one passenger or have a letter of designation that exempts the vessel from Coast Guard Inspection. 

Reserve the right to have the vessel examined by the institution’s marine operations personnel and/or a professional marine surveyor if any questions exist as to vessel’s condition, stability or general sea worthiness.

Conduct whatever inquiry may be necessary to establish the competency of captain, crew, or operator to provide for a safe voyage, including examination of licenses, etc.

Establish a formal institutional procedure for documenting approvals of charters. 

Ensure Chief Scientists are aware of these procedures, especially the safety-related terms of the charter. Ensure that insurance coverage is in accordance with the institution’s policy.

If the vessel is not otherwise inspected or certificated (USCG, SOLAS, USN INSURV, NSF, ABS), require a marine survey or, if appropriate, a USCG courtesy examination.  If none of the foregoing can be obtained in a timely manner, the marine operations staff of a UNOLS Institution should ensure the vessel is inspected by a qualified person or at their discretion, inspect the vessel themselves prior to charter.  RVOC has produced and the UNOLS Council has approved guidelines for the inspection of vessels proposed for charter.  See Appendix D for the UNOLS Council approved checklist for chartering non-UNOLS vessels.

Ensure the vessel is equipped with an appropriate EPIRB, and that the vessel’s operator is familiar with its purpose and operation.


Require the charterer to prepare a formal cruise plan for each voyage, which shall include, as a minimum, the elements listed in the paragraph regarding cruise/voyage plans in Chapter 3 of these standards.

Require reporting of all significant cruise plan changes to the Institution’s shore based contact.

Require the charterer to provide a list of names for all scientific personnel participating in a charter voyage.  List should include next of kin, addresses and telephone numbers, and should be filed with designated base personnel.

Require a report of all vessel departures and arrivals.  Ensure a return to port notice is received within two hours of scheduled time, or that radio notice of a change in plans has been received if the vessel is to be more than two hours late.  If required reports are not received, the charterer’s shore-based contact will initiate institutional procedures for notification and action.

For voyages planned to last over 24 hours, a designated shore-based contact should receive daily radio reports of the vessel’s present location, and planned movements for the next 24 hours.  This report should also include reports of adverse weather, equipment failures or other factors affecting the vessel and its planned operations.