No insurance or qualifications required for boat businesses

Commissioner of Police Derek Byrne, left, and the Department of Environment's Scott Slaybaugh at Wednesday's public meeting.

No experience, no qualifications, no insurance? No problem. Setting up a water-sports business in the Cayman Islands is as easy as filling out a form and paying a $75 fee, officials said at a public safety meeting Wednesday.

The forum was called by the Cayman Islands Tourism Association amid concerns about reckless behavior in Cayman’s waters, including jet-ski riders putting swimmers and divers at risk.

Questioned over what minimum safety standards are legally required of water-sports operators, a panel of officials, spanning multiple sectors of government and law enforcement, revealed that in Cayman’s waters, good behavior is largely voluntary.

As long as operators have had their boat checked by the Port Authority to ensure they have the required safety equipment on board, they are free to take paying customers on the water without any other requirements or restrictions. Many of the business owners at the meeting, who voluntarily pay for insurance, captain’s licenses and other qualifications for their staff, seemed shocked that this was not an official requirement. Clinton Jackson, of the Port Authority, said he had been pushing for tighter regulations for some time. He believes anyone operating a boat should face the same standards as motorists on Cayman’s roads and be required to pass a test and carry insurance. At the very least, he said commercial operators should have to be trained and prove they know the “rules of the road” before getting behind the wheel of a passenger boat.

Scott Slaybaugh, of the Department of Environment, who was also on the panel, said a law had been drafted in 2006 in an effort to fill many of the gaps in legislation around water-sports operators. He said the law did not go anywhere, but he believes it is still required.

“It is often voluntary to do the right thing,” he said. “Anyone can come off a farm tractor and get behind the wheel of a boat and it is all perfectly legal.”

He said there was not even a requirement for scuba diving instructors to be certified in order to take guests out in the Cayman Islands.

The Cayman Islands Tourism Association does have a set of standards that all its members must abide by, including insurance, training and safety standards. However, membership of CITA is not mandatory, and concerns were raised about an increasing number of smaller operators, particularly on Seven Mile Beach and at Stingray City, said to be cutting costs and standards.

Claudia Brady, head of compliance and enforcement at the Department of Commerce and Investment, said her ministry wanted to make it easy and affordable for people to start small businesses.

She said government had looked into the possibility of requiring operators who use public land to have insurance because of concerns that the government could be held liable in the event of an accident. However, she said, the insurance companies would not provide coverage for these operators and it is not a legal requirement to get a trade and business license.

Leroy Jordan, guest services manager at The WaterColours condo complex on Seven Mile Beach, said he was concerned about what to recommend to his guests.

“As a consumer we have some jet skis right next to our property that people are renting out. Am I to understand that they could just be there with no insurance and not really knowing the rules or anything? They could just be fly-by-night?” Mr. Jordan said.

Ms. Brady replied, “The short answer is yes.”

Danielle Wolfe, operations manager at the Caribbean Club on Seven Mile Beach, said the business had taken a decision to stop recommending businesses that did not have insurance. She said she was concerned that the business could be sued if it recommended an operator who was not insured.

Rod McDowall, of Red Sail Sports and CITA’s water-sports director, suggested the bar had been lowered too far in terms of costs and standards. He said it was great to support small businesses, but not at the expense of tourists.

“If you are going to go into business, there are costs affiliated with it at the end of the day,” he said.

“If you want to get into the business, accept the responsibility and go out and look after tourists and be responsible. If you can’t do it and you don’t have the means to do it, you need to go away for five years and come back later. You can’t just throw it out of the window.”

He said the Land and Sea Co-op had been set up in part to allow smaller operators to group together to make insurance affordable and questioned why smaller operators on Public Beach could not get insurance through that group.

Many in the room, including water-sports business owners, seemed stunned that many basic safety standards appeared to be optional.

A member of the public, Kathryn Willman, gave a perspective from outside of the industry. “I am absolutely horrified that you don’t need a license or insurance to drive a boat,” she said.

“Why don’t you need a license to drive something when you could kill people and why don’t you need insurance?”

Mr. Jackson, of the Port Authority, said he agreed that one should and urged government to implement it.

Commissioner of Police Derek Byrne said he was particularly concerned about Jet Skis and WaveRunners, as well as some of the party boats that moor up in the North Sound and at Rum Point on Sundays. He said police had rescued two people in difficulty on WaveRunners over the weekend, one of whom did not appear to have been given any kind of safety briefing.

He recommended that the various bodies responsible for Cayman’s waters come together to produce a national water safety strategy. He said police were stepping up enforcement and that would increase further once the coastguard was established. But, he said, an industry-wide set of standards would help police do their job and identify areas where the law or regulations may need to be altered.

“It seems to me it would be a fairly small piece of work to identify the current position, the desired state, identify the gap and close the gap,” he said.

Some on the panel felt it would require legislative change to ensure uniform standards across the industry.

Mr. McDowell said, “Someone is going to have to stand up and have the courage to make some decisions regarding registration of boats, boat operating licenses and insurance. Set them in stone and say these are the minimum requirements, no ifs or buts.”

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  1. I don’t understand why anyone is surprised by this. It just seems to me you’re re-visiting something that should have been dealt with over a decade ago.

    My first big general news story (technically my beat at the time was covering sports) at Cayman Net News was the release of the OCC’s water-sports safety report in November 2006. It had been commissioned following the Sun Runner capsize. The Net News archives containing my reports are now long gone but this is the Compass report – – and it really hits all the points. The document landed on my desk for a very simple reason – at the time I had been a dive instructor (PADI MSDT and CMAS 2-Star) for 13 years and also had other relevant experience including BSAC/RYA boat handling training. To say it made, and still makes, disturbing reading is an understatement.

    Exactly what happened to the report isn’t clear but the impression I got at the time was that response to it was split between the dive operators and the general water-sports companies. While many of the dive operators took the report onboard and made moves to introduce relevant qualifications for their staff the response amongst the water-sports community, who were quite clearly identified as the worst offenders, was completely the opposite. They simply seemed to dig their collective heels in and refuse to accept the criticism – in fact odds are that’s what killed the proposed legislation in 2006. We were refused access to any of the meetings held to discuss the report but I was told by someone who was present that things got quite heated at times. Whatever, in the end the report was quietly buried and business carried as usual.

    If CITA had backed the proposed legislation in 2006 they could have tackled many of the problems you’re now seeing so it does make you wonder what the agenda is here.

    Incidentally, the jet ski dangers are definitely nothing new. In 2007 I was working on a feature about the Jolly Roger and we were being buzzed by at least half-a-dozen of them while moored off GT with swimmers in the water.

    And as a parting thought consider this – one point raised in this story is the fact that many of the small ad hoc water-sports operators cannot get insurance or, to put it another way, they are uninsurable. Doesn’t that tell you something?