Maryland waters soon could see more large yachts under a law passed in Annapolis that is expected to be a boon for the state's marinas and tourist destinations.
The law allows for pleasure boats up to 200 feet long to navigate state waters without a licensed bay pilot. Previously, the law required vessels longer than 79 feet to hire a pilot.
Considered emergency legislation, the law was signed Tuesday by Gov. Larry Hogan and took effect Wednesday, in time for boating season, advocates said.
Its passage was welcomed by marina operators from Annapolis to Baltimore, who expect to see more yachts owned and chartered by the well-heeled make their way into the Chesapeake Bay.
"These vessels spend tens of thousands of dollars alone on one fuel bill, plus money on provisioning, local entertainment, tourism and repairs," said Jessie Bowling of Baltimore Marine Centers, which operates five marinas in the harbor.
On the East Coast circuit, yachts typically summer in New York, Newport, R.I., and New England and winter in Florida or the Caribbean Sea. They transit between the two areas in the spring and fall, often stopping on the way for fuel or repairs.
Annapolis Yacht Basin, a private marina in the heart of the state capital, has space for 15 vessels larger than 100 feet but has seen a drop-off in large yachts in recent years because of the pilot requirement, said Steve Grace, its longtime dockmaster.
"Some of them purposely bypass us because of that fact, that they have to put pilots on," Grace said. "They tell me, 'We'd love to come up that way, but we're going to go outside.'"
By outside, they mean skipping the passage through the Chesapeake Bay, deterred in part by the inconvenience and the $268-an-hour cost of hiring a state-licensed bay pilot.
"Previously, bay pilots had to come onboard these vessels, even if it was for a short dinner cruise or movement to fuel piers, which was a deterrent to these kinds of vessels visiting the Chesapeake Bay," Bowling said.
"Absolutely it will help us," Grace said of the law's passage.
More boaters and their crews will bring business to his marina and Annapolis at large as the yachting season picks up in the next few weeks, he said.
"To us it's really important that we see that type of traffic, and it's great for the town," he said. "They're spending money, they're in the restaurants, they're in the jewelry stores, they're purchasing fuel."
The law applies to foreign-flagged yachts or U.S.-flagged vessels that engage in foreign trade, which account for the vast majority of the yachts that travel along the Eastern seaboard. Flagging a yacht in a foreign country reduces overhead costs.
U.S.-flagged yachts up to 200 feet that do not visit foreign ports already were allowed to travel Maryland waters without a bay pilot.
Legislative analysts predicted that the bill would not cost the state anything, and the measure passed unanimously in the state Senate and the House.
Erin Montgomery, a Hogan spokeswoman, said the governor's "No. 1 priority is economic development," and the yachting measure would "increase tourism revenue."
She called the bill one of many Hogan will sign "to help get Maryland open for business once again."
Even the people who are losing the work supported the bill, said Capt. Eric Nielsen, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots, which represents bay pilots trained to navigate large vessels and ships through tight channels in the bay and harbor.
The association is mainly focused on guiding commercial cargo ships, Nielsen said, and yachts have never been a major source of revenue or concern for harbor safety.
"Even though a 200-foot vessel seems large, it really isn't in our scope of work," he said.
Nielsen said yacht captains can still request a bay pilot if desired.
Jay Dayton, a board member of the U.S. Superyacht Association, said large yachts "have many choices on where to spend their time and money, so attracting them to the Chesapeake will have a very positive impact on local business."
Waterside Marina in Norfolk, Va., regularly hosts large yachts moving up and down the East Coast, said John Desocio, its dockmaster. He said he "wouldn't think" the change in Maryland law would draw away his customers, but he wasn't sure.
Officials at Baltimore Marine Centers got the idea for the legislation from yacht operators who used to berth in Baltimore but began skipping the bay on their seasonal trips between the Northeast and the Caribbean, citing the inconvenience of needing to hire a bay pilot every time they had to move their vessel, Bowling said.
"When they have to go get fuel at our fuel pier, and you're talking about a few yards, they would have to have a pilot on board," she said.
Now, with the pilot requirement gone, Bowling hopes to start attracting more yacht captains back to Baltimore — though that won't occur overnight.
"Right now, they're not taking that turn into the bay, but this is one step in getting them into the habit of coming," she said. "It's baby steps. One step at a time."
Grace said yacht captains often base their decisions about how they travel along the coast on local pilotage requirements — and that could continue to deter interest in yachting in Maryland waters.
Delaware still requires all vessels of 100 tons or more to have pilots on board in its waters, Grace said, meaning that large yachts traveling along the coast would need pilots if they wanted to transit the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal to enter or exit the bay.
Grace said he hopes "Delaware will see the light" and change its law, too.
Regardless, he still expects to see more yachters who "would love to visit Annapolis, Baltimore, St. Michaels," he said.
"A lot of the owners enjoy this area quite a bit," Grace said. "And even if they had to go back down and go out the bottom of the bay, they would come."
The law applies to foreign-flagged yachts and U.S.-flagged yachts that visit foreign harbors. American-flagged vessels up to 200 feet that remain in U.S. waters may navigate Maryland waters without a pilot.