ON June 30, the eyes of the world focused on The Bahamas for all the wrong reasons. One American woman was killed and at least nine others were injured after a tour boat carrying 12 people exploded a mile off Barraterre in the Exumas. While the cause of that explosion remains under investigation, the incident drew our attention to the business of boating in Bahamian waters and to boat operations in general, vessels being used for commercial charters, fishing and for private recreational use.
On the leisure side of the equation, The Bahamas has never been more popular than it is today for boaters. Mega-yachts and supermega-yachts that once headed to the Turkish coast, or parts of the Med or to destinations in Central and South America are increasingly opting for The Bahamas. For the high net worth individual, security is top priority. To date, The Bahamas has been able to provide not only some of the most exquisite waters in the world in one of the most pristine environments, but the country has been able to offer the ability to experience its turquoise wonders in relative safety and security.
The result is an under the radar economic boom, particularly for Family Islands. Marinas are enjoying record seasons that stretch longer than ever. Havens like Harbour Island, Eleuthera and Hope Town, Abaco, are enjoying return visitors who book their stays a season or a year ahead. Islands off New Providence that have become half-day excursion stops are being discovered by increasing numbers of boaters weekly as the summer unfolds with more people snorkelling, diving for conch, swimming with turtles and exploring coral reefs.
If all of that sounds like a panacea of floating pleasures, there is a serious side. Just as road safety is essential to protect lives on the streets, boat safety is essential to protect those enjoying the waters. In addition to the expensive yachts that are privately owned and used for family or corporate purposes, far more mid-price range vessels are operating as charters plus dozens of Bahamian-owned vessels in the excursion charter business. With increasing boat traffic and an historic record number of charter operators, we must enforce all regulations and ensure that every vessel that operates for commercial purposes be inspected and licensed and every operator insured for liability as well as comprehensive damage.
There was a time the Ministry of Tourism took the lead out of a sense of concern, wanting to make certain that ferry boats carrying passengers in the Family Islands were safe and boats and ferry operators were insured. It is not Tourism’s role to do so but they stepped in out of what they felt was necessity. The actual enforcers are a somewhat complicated mix, falling primarily to Ministry of Transport with the Port Department responsible for activity within the range of ports and the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) responsible for enforcement in waters lying outside the port. Depending on the nature of the illegal or suspicious activity, the RBDF acts on behalf of the ministry or department aligned with the activity so in cases of human smuggling it may be acting for Immigration or Royal Bahamas Police Force and in cases of poaching, officers and vessels are acting on behalf of Marine Resources or Fisheries. In some cases, agencies work together and in concert with Royal Bahamas Police Force Harbour Patrol. Part of the problem lies in the fact there is no single phone hotline or VHF radio channel for other boaters or observers to call to report a problem so many of those calls end up with the volunteer Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association which then has to forward for action.
It seems a single hotline for cellphone users is a simple solution.
A highly qualified marine surveyor has also recommended that commercially operated vessels be identified by a single additional letter in the boat registration number. Registration ID is now by island with NP for New Providence, AB Abaco and the like. The boat registration must be visible on the hull and it the ID carried a large C as part of the number it would make the work of the RBDF, Harbour Patrol or Port Department easier and more efficient.
Tragedy at sea in our shallow waters should never happen. These are the waters that give us life; they are the blessing the Bahamian people draw strength from every day.
Although the law is very clear that commercial boat operators must apply for a licence and boat registration must be updated annually, violations are far too common.
Unsuspecting visitors trust the boats they step aboard are safe. They have faith that a country like The Bahamas with world-class hotels and out of this world marine life will have world-class tourist boat operations. The majority of operators do take care of their vessels. It is how they make a living. We have to get to the point where everyone is following the rules.
With a new Port Controller, Dr Raymond King, assuming the post as long-serving Controller Cyril Roker stepped down on July 1, an arduous task lies ahead. Boats must be properly inspected, insured and all commercial operations must be monitored.
The water is this country’s treasure, our most important natural resource. Its sprawling 100,000 square miles of sparkling turquoise glass-clear shimmer lures visitors, drives hospitality, creates real estate market demand, helps pay our bills for education, health care, security and provides for the food we eat. This playground must be open to all, not just the wealthy on fine sportsfish or mega-yachts but to all Bahamians and safety is top priority. Protecting nearly 400,000 residents and 6.1 million visitors must extend seriously beyond the shoreline to activities at sea.
Just as the RBDF risks facing poachers who may be armed and who threaten harm – and have done so for years – so the Port Department and Harbour Patrol must find the courage and have the resources to ensure the leisure boat business is completely above board.