A number of high-profile marine rescues and accidents have led local police to seek a review and update of local marine safety policy.
Six boaters, four Caymanians and two Hondurans, spent more than a week adrift at sea following a disastrous attempt to travel to Roatan last month.
Their boat sank within five hours of the trip beginning, forcing the men to inflate a life raft, grab what food and water supplies they could and gather rainwater to drink during their time adrift just to survive.
In a major stroke of luck, an oil tanker travelling in the Western Caribbean spotted the men and picked them up, transporting them to the US for a return trip to Cayman.
While six missing boaters are still thanking their lucky stars for their unexpected rescue, Cayman authorities are beginning to turn their minds toward marine safety issues in the wake of what might have been a terrible tragedy.
The captain of the 37-foot fishing vessel ‘Miss Janice’, Travis Welcome, has acknowledged the craft was overloaded and has said it capsized and sank quickly when hit by two high waves on Sunday, 17 July.
It remains unclear whether it was any local agency’s responsibility to inspect the craft prior to its departure. However, in checking with different law enforcement agencies on the Islands it appears the ‘Miss Janice’ was not inspected prior to departure.
Photos of the craft provided by the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service showed it was well overburdened before its departure.
According to Cayman Islands Port Operations Manager Joey Woods, the ‘Miss Janice’ was not docked at the port and did not have the items loaded onto it there either. Normally, port officials would inspect the cargo being loaded onto a ship and customs officers would take it down to the craft.
“Since the vessel didn’t leave from [the port], we didn’t have any control over that at all,” Woods says.
Assistant Customs Collector Jeff Jackson said officers would normally be guided during an inspection by how the craft is registered. He said there is typically one type of registration for fishing vessels and another for cargo-hauling craft. The registration is handled by the Cayman Islands Maritime Authority.
Jackson says customs officers do have a designated area for boat inspections at the port in George Town, but they will also perform random checks at other docks to determine whether watercraft there are fit for use. He said customs officers will also be notified from time to time if there is a safety concern about a particular vessel.
“I’m just not sure what took place with this particular vessel,” he says.
Woods says there is a section of the Cayman Islands Penal Code that deals with overloading watercraft. However, it’s not known whether that section would have applied to the situation with ‘Miss Janice’.
Section 214 of the Penal Code reads: “A person who knowingly or negligently conveys or causes any person to be conveyed for hire by water or by air in any vessel, hovercraft or aircraft when such a vessel … is in such a state or so loaded as to be unsafe is guilty of an offence.”
The RCIPS, which handles marine enforcement for the Islands, referred all questions about marine safety issues to the Port Authority.
However, the police service has become concerned recently about the number of incidents that have occurred in Cayman’s waters where people have been injured of killed.
In late June, one man was killed and three other people had to be rescued by a nearby dive boat after their small craft overturned in rough seas in South Sound.
The Sunset Divers boat just happened to be in the area trying to rescue a kite surfer who had gone into the water nearby. It was later learned the surfer swam to shore.
In March, the local craft ‘El Tigre’ had to be guided into Grand Cayman, travelling in reverse for much of the way while the crew pumped out water. All those aboard got back to Cayman safely with help from police and Cayman Islands Helicopters.
Four adults and three children were rescued in South Sound in December when their craft ran into the barrier reef trying to find an opening to return to the dock
According to boat passenger Gordon McLaughlin, the boaters were thrown off by the buoy markers near the South Sound reef. He said the buoys were lit on the inside of the reef, but not the outside.
“They need to fix the markers at the reef, they outside markers are not lit up,” McLaughlin said. “Trust me, they’re going to kill somebody out there.”
In October, a shipping company worker was killed after diving into the water to untangle a rope from a mooring buoy. On the way back up to the surface, police said it appeared the man was struck by the ship’s propeller.
“As a result of a number of incidents recently concerning safety at sea, it is the intention of the RCIPS to invite partner agencies to work with us to develop a national marine safety strategy,” a police spokesperson said.
In perhaps the worst marine tragedy in Cayman’s modern history, five boaters – including a 13 year old girl – left all five people on board a 32ft canoe presumed dead after they went out in heavy surf into the North Sound.
The craft was found overturned near the North Sound reef, but the boaters were never found.
The safety of small commercial vessels was flagged up as a major issue five years ago in a report by the Cayman Islands Complaints Commissioner’s office.
“The evidence leads to the conclusion that some [small commercial vessel] operations function at an unacceptable level of risk. While there are exemplary operators, there are others that fall short of acceptable standards,” the report noted.
While the OCC review looked mainly at commercial vessels taking tourists and other passengers around the North Sound, it did address some shortcomings in the inspection and regulation of smaller vessels.
The report explains that minimal safety requirements are imposed on small commercial vessels by the Port Regulations. These include minimum age for operators of 15 years old and presence of buoyant vest for each passenger, life buoys, anchor and rope, bilge pump, sound signalling apparatus, flares and fire extinguishers.
However, aside from these port regulations, other small commercial vessels are not subject to law-based regulatory control for areas such as: construction, operational safety, crew qualifications, inspection, equipment or compliance/enforcement. These vessels include domestic cruise tenders, coastal ferries, excursion vessels, chartered fishing boats, power boats, adventure boats and personal watercraft for hire currently operating commercially.
The report said that as it stands there is no clear and rationalised system for enforcing regulations as between government entities.
The Port Authority Law and regulations do require the authority to conduct annual vessel and safety equipment inspections for boat engines and the existence of safety equipment. Those inspections usually are conducted before the end of July.
Any vessel owner found wanting by the inspections could face prosecution, a fine of up to $1,000 and a possible year in prison upon conviction.
Requirements for on-board safety, rescue and navigational equipment increase depending on boat size. The categories include eight to 20ft, 20ft to 40ft and 40ft or greater. There are requirements for bilge pumps, anchors with various lengths of rope, various kinds of signalling apparatus, navigation equipment and first aid kits.
“When you’re catering to tourists, say on a Stingray City trip, some of those boats can carry over a hundred people and there’s supposed to be a life vest on board for everybody, including crew,” says Harbour Patrol officer Duane Panton, who along with colleague Clinton ‘CJ’ Jackson is responsible for the inspections.
“We go down the checklist and make sure that everything is working and has not expired. We also do the commercial fishing boats; if they’re not up to par and don’t have the certificate customs will not clear them to leave,” he added.
Additional requirements for fishing vessels include rescue boats and long-range radio, which can operate 200-300 miles from Cayman.