The call came in early from the police air support unit – at least 50 boats at
12 Mile Bank.
By mid-morning, the total number of vessels reported in and around Grand Cayman’s waters had swelled to 150, as an armada of fishermen took advantage of the chance to get out on the ocean for the first time in two months.
That’s around three times what you might expect on a busy Saturday in summer, Lieutenant Commander Leo Anglin observes from the helm of the coastguard vessel Cayman Defender.
The police boat rolls smoothly over the mild swells of the North Sound.
Sergeant Sean Bodden moves from one window to the next, his eyes glued to his binoculars.
“How many people on that boat?” he asks, passing the binoculars to crew member Derren Burlington. A former skipper in the Joint Marine Unit, now a court bailiff, Burlington has returned as a volunteer with the coastguard to help bolster the force during COVID operations.
He squints through the field glasses and confirms there are just two people on board, in compliance with the law.
The coastguard crew is on the lookout for violations of the COVID-19 suppression regulations.
A total ban on boating and fishing was lifted Tuesday, but there are still restrictions. Social distancing must be maintained, meaning a maximum of two people on board any one vessel. The Wildlife Interaction Zones – Stingray City and sandbar and Starfish Point – as well as Rum Point are all still off limits.
It’s not just about enforcing these rules, Anglin says. The crew is also there to educate the public and ensure vessels are operating safely.
Rusty boats, rusty boaters
The coastguard is still in its infancy, but one of its primary remits is search-and-rescue coordination.
Commander Robert Scotland is particularly worried today about the impact of rusty boats – and potentially rusty boaters – taking to the water in droves.
In an interview with the Cayman Compass prior to the deployment of the Cayman Defender, he highlighted concerns that the pent-up desire to get on the ocean might cause people to make rash decisions and take their vessels out in less-than-ideal conditions.
The aerial unit had already sent through an image of a tiny Boston Whaler bobbing like a cork in heavy seas on the western side of the island.
Throughout this week, Scotland is urging boaters to exercise caution.
“There is a desire to get out there, but we were also asking people to exercise common sense and not put themselves at unnecessary risk,” he says.
“If you can’t get out there today, you can get out there later in the week. Don’t jeopardise your wellbeing for the sake of instant gratification.”
Establishing the coastguard
Scotland runs operations from the former Joint Marine Unit base at the end of
A former detective who went into the private sector, he returned to uniformed services to embrace the challenge of setting up the new service.
Another key concern for the commander today is the potential return of illicit vessels to the waters.
In some respects, the lockdowns that have enforced the closure of large parts of the islands’ economy have impacted the underground economy as well. With a total ban on marine activity, it has been difficult for drug-running canoes to smuggle their product into the islands. Scotland is wary that the resumption of boating may provide cover for those boats to resume their illegal cargo runs.
“As you know, the island has been closed for a while, so we know there will be persons out there trying to bring in contraband,” he says.
“We will be watching out for that.”
In some ways, the COVID-19 health crisis has been a strange detour for the coastguard from its primary objectives.
In other ways, it has accelerated the development of the unit.
As Scotland speaks with the Compass, two volunteers are going through a course in an adjoining training room.
Petty Officer Dwight Hunter is literally showing the volunteers the ropes.
They each try to tie a bowline knot with varying degrees of success, till they get it right. Later, Hunter runs them through rescue drills and basic WaveRunner operations in the inlet in front of the marine base.
Both men are on the first day of a two-day course, to join up as civilian volunteers supporting senior officers on COVID-19 patrols.
Ultimately, they will support coastguard officers on WaveRunners, covering the waterways around Cayman.
“We are teaching individuals who have taken their time out of their busy schedules to come and help the country,” says Hunter, who runs the programme.
So far, 14 volunteers have been trained to assist on a rotating schedule.
Chris Bailey, who is a director at PwC and currently working from home, says he was using his vacation days to put towards some volunteer hours.
He says it was useful to learn the marine rules and he is keen to get out and support the coastguard effort.
“There is a lot going on out there so the more we can support as quickly as possible, the better,” he says.
Roger McLaughlin, who works at the Cayman Islands Airports Authority, says it was a chance to give back to the country.
“I love the sea, I love to learn new stuff. I got the opportunity to volunteer and I took it,” he says.
This programme is specifically geared towards bolstering capacity during the COVID-19 crisis.
But it also dovetails with a longer-term plan to create a reserve force, similar to the special constabulary.
“We intend to have a professional coastguard reserve and then a volunteer component,” says Scotland.
He says volunteers would be trained to take part in search-and-rescue operations while officers would take the lead on law enforcement.
Scotland believes the coronavirus volunteerism has helped create greater awareness of boater safety, as well as momentum for the coastguard’s longer-term plans.
Back on the North Sound, the Cayman Defender has spotted a boat anchored up inside a marine park zone.
The two men on board are about to put rods in the water when the police vessel approaches.
They seem genuinely unaware of the regulations, and Trevor Tummings, a senior customs officer who has joined the marine force for the COVID-19 response, points out the row of channel markers denoting the no-fishing zone, and the fishermen move along.
“Some of these can be a situation where we educate the public as to the various legislation,” says Anglin. “Some of them are quite minor and worthy of just a warning. In other situations, we take action.”
There will be more patrols throughout the day but as the boat heads back to shore, Anglin is pleased with what he has seen on day one of the new marine rules.
There have been a few minor infractions of Port Authority rules, but most people seem to have got the key message of no more than two people to a boat and that Stingray City and other wildlife interaction zones are off limits.
“Overall, compliance has been tremendous,” says Anglin.
Scotland says he hopes that kind of behaviour will continue over the coming weeks.
He warns boaters to keep to the COVID-19 regulations to protect themselves from getting brought to court. But he is also anxious that they follow proper safety procedures.
He advises all mariners to make sure their vessel is seaworthy, that they have life jackets and a VHF radio or a fully charged cellphone on board, and that they file a float plan indicating when they are leaving and when they plan to return.
“We don’t want to lose anybody out there because of something they have overlooked,” Scotland adds.