Sandbar closures irk captains

Captain Bryan Ebanks was so angry on 22 January, he was literally shouting into the phone.

‘It’s time someone takes our cruise tourism products seriously,’ he yelled. ‘Eighty per cent of the people who come here want to go on Sandbar tours.’

The incident that had roused the veteran tour boat captain’s ire was the closure of a narrow strip of sand in Grand Cayman’s North Sound. It was the second time that month the popular tourist attraction was closed to marine traffic because of inclement weather.

The Sandbar offers tour boat passengers the rare opportunity to stand in waist deep water while dozens of Southern Stingrays swim by to be petted, fed and even held, under supervision by boat crews.

When the weather is too rough, wading at the Sandbar can be dangerous. The rays can become startled and lash out at visitors if they inadvertently come into contact with them. Also, rough waves can sweep inexperienced swimmers off the bar and into the deeper waters of the North Sound.

But on Thursday, 22 January, Captain Bryan said none of that was happening. One of his boats was out in the area with a group of 27 people from a wedding party and was told that based on an assessment done by marine authorities the Sandbar had been closed.

‘At around 2pm I got a call from my captain who has worked for me eight years and he informed me that the south side, north side and west side (of the Sandbar) was good and the east end was choppy,’ Captain Ebanks wrote in a letter to the Port Authority. ‘In his words, more than half the Sandbar was good.’

The tour boat was not allowed to enter the Sandbar but its passengers were able to go to nearby Stingray City, which is another abode of the creatures in about 10 feet of water. It’s a popular snorkelling site, but interaction with the rays is more limited.

‘If it’s calm enough to go snorkelling, its calm enough to go to the Sandbar,’ Captain Ebanks said. ‘They’re taking this (the decision to close the Sandbar) too casually.’

Kelly’s Watersports manager and co-owner Dave Kelly said during another Sandbar closure in January he had to take his boats out of the area when police and marine officials decided it wasn’t safe to be there.

‘The people were in the water and at one point the people were having a real good time,’ Mr. Kelly said. ‘They didn’t want to go.’

When a tour is cancelled, operators must refund the money to those passengers who have already paid. Mr. Kelly, who operates seven boats in the North Sound, said he missed out on $15,000.

‘I lost big-time that day,’ he said.

The Port Authority Law (1999) gives police the authority to close the Sandbar when conditions get too rough. In practice, the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service didn’t enforce that provision too often for the first eight years since the law came into effect.

In 2007, the first such Sandbar closure caused uproar among local boat captains who tour the North Sound. In 2008, the area was closed eight times, according to police. This year, it’s been closed off twice. Boat operators can be fined for ignoring the closures.

In late 2007, a working group made up of watersports operators, the RCIPS, the Department of Environment, the Port Authority and the Ministry of Tourism met to draft a set of procedures detailing when and how North Sound closures should be handled. All groups acknowledge the meetings, but none could produce an actual written copy of those procedures.

Generally, the wind speed, wind direction, and tide must all be taken into account when a decision to shut down the Sandbar is made. Boat captains are confident that with winds around 22-25 knots (roughly 25-29 miles-per-hour), it’s more than likely unsafe to venture to the Sandbar.

But that’s not true in all cases, according to Cayman Islands Tourism Association President Steve Broadbelt.

‘Depending on the tides, you could have 30 mile-per-hour winds coming out of the south and the Sandbar could be quite reasonable,’ Mr. Broadbelt said. ‘The wind angle is just as important as speed.’

Even with routine safety checks, it’s not always an easy decision.

‘The police have a really tough call to make,’ Mr. Broadbelt said. ‘It’s easy to look back and say ‘well, conditions were fine and we lost a lot of money,’ but what if the conditions were worse than expected and an accident happens?’

The boat tour operators, however, believe the person who makes that call is not experienced enough with the Sandbar or the North Sound to know when it’s safe enough to travel.

‘You can’t just look at it (the water),’ Captain Ebanks said. ‘How is he (the marine officer) going to understand the Sandbar if he don’t get his feet wet?’

Watersports operators are the first to admit that not all of their colleagues are as responsible as they should be when making decisions to venture out. There have been major accidents in recent years, including the capsizing of Sun Runner in 2006; 57 people, including crew members were aboard. Two other, smaller boats flipped over in early 2007 in rough waters. There were no major injuries in those incidents.

‘That’s how we ended up like this in the first place,’ Captain Ebanks said, referring to the Sandbar closures over the past two years.

RCIPS Superintendent Kurt Walton, who is in charge of the Marine Unit and Drugs Task Force, issued a written statement this week that indicated police take decisions to close the Sandbar extremely seriously.

‘We are conscious of the value of the Sandbar as a tourist attraction and we are well aware that many people make their livelihood from this venture,’ Mr. Walton said. ‘However, we must bear in mind that no value can be put on the loss of life.’

‘It should be remembered that people have been injured in the past due to boats operating in unsafe conditions,’ Mr. Walton added.

Boat captains said Sandbar closures of late, when they believed it was not necessary, aren’t driving them out of business. Rather, they have added the proverbial insult to injury.

The boat owners and operators are already beginning to experience some of the tough times affecting the Caribbean tourism industry. Cruise ship passenger numbers in Cayman have declined steadily since mid-2007, and North Sound tours get the majority of their passengers from those ships.

All the more reason not to shut down the tours on days when they can happen, Captain Ebanks said.

‘You’re holding someone’s future in your hands, you’re messing with our economy at such a bad economic time,’ he said. ‘The cruise passengers come not to look (at) the Turtle Farm nor the dolphin facilities. Seventy-five to 80 per cent of the cruise passengers come to see the Stingrays.’

Superintendent Walton said he understands the operators’ concerns, and vowed to continue to work with them on safety issues in the future.

‘Our priority is, and always will be, preventing injury and loss of life, thus aiming to safeguard the watersports industry and operations at the Sandbar,’ he said.