Boat operators that take tourists out to the North Sound on snorkel trips in rough conditions should be banned from doing so.
So says one local operator, Dexter Ebanks of Dexter’s Fantasea Tours.
For the past 15 months he has been trying to voice his concerns on this issue to the relevant authorities in Cayman, he said, but it is still happening.
This past Monday Captain Ebanks said at least two and maybe three operators took trips out to the North Sound with cruise tourists during the very rough conditions.
This, he said, was done despite the fact that pre-scheduled cruise ship watersports tours were cancelled by all the cruise ships.
He is concerned that the Port Authority permits freelance operators to sell down at the port or at Spotts Landing, but that they are not stopped from taking the cruise tourists from there in bad weather.
He is also concerned that not all operators carry liability insurance ‘There’s no compromise for safety,’ he said, asserting that every operator should have liability insurance in order to operate independently under their trade and business licence.
Manager Cruise Operations and Security with the Port Authority Joseph Woods has advised that anyone with comments such as Mr. Ebanks’ can make them known during the consultative period of the new law being worked on for the safety of local commercial vessels and pleasure craft.
The Port Authority is heading up this multi-agency project of drawing up new regulations and improving the existing regulations under the Port Authority Law (2003 revision). Mr. Woods expects that the public consultation period for the law will take place early next year.
Mr. Woods said that although the Port Authority permits freelance tour operators to go to the port to sell their products, currently it is the operators’ own decision to ascertain if it’s safe enough to take tourists out.
Under current law there is no way to stop boats going to the North Sound because of bad weather.
With regard to liability insurance, he explained that a registered ship with the Maritime Authority must have liability insurance but if a vessel isn’t registered with this authority then currently there are no regulations for it with regard to insurance.
Although he cannot yet disclose details of the new law being drawn up Mr. Woods said, ‘The public may rest assured that due consideration is being given to these issues within the regulatory framework being worked on’.
Captain Ebanks said he uses his better judgement as to what’s safe and what is not safe.
He said if an accident happens it will affect not only the operator that brings out the tourists, but all the operators, including his own business. That is what he is worried about.
‘I believe they should be restricted from taking tourists from the dock in bad weather. When winds are in excess of 20 mph no-one should be in the North Sound,’ he said.
‘I don’t want to take bread from someone’s mouth, but it’s a matter of safety.
‘There needs to be some mechanism put in place to stop them because once you get more than 15 knots out there the current can be so bad. On Monday the current was so bad out there someone said to me it was a wonder those that went out came back alive,’ he said.
‘If someone is snorkelling out at the sandbar in rough conditions there is a very strong current to the east of it, and if they get caught off it there is no way in hell they’ll get back on it.
‘It’s a hard call to make on an island of this size to take bread out of someone’s mouth, but there must be some guidelines as to knowing when the weather is good or not good.’
He is also calling for inspections on boats to check overcrowding, that they have life vests and are in good working order.
A report released earlier this month from the Office of the Complaints Commissioner came to the conclusion that while tremendous effort is expended on providing a good tourist experience on small commercial vessels in Cayman waters, this is to the detriment of safety.
The report recommends that new and improved legislation be established to regulate the industry, and this is a process that has already been under way since June.
The report recommends the improved regulations include the establishment of a certification regime for masters, mates and crew, a construction, safety equipment and capacity regime and a rigorous inspection and enforcement regime.
The report came about out of concern expressed by watersports tour operators and residents regarding the apparent lack of regulation or enforcement for commercial vessels, especially those that travel to the sandbar.
The capsizing of the Sun Runner in the North Sound of Grand Cayman during the course of the investigation (7 April) added urgency to the investigation and recommendations contained in the report.