By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A marine group yesterday said its plan to overhaul watercraft regulation will save lives, generate millions for the government and deter crime, its president asking: “How many more have to die?”
Randolph Beneby, president of Anchors Down Marine Group, told Tribune Business its proposed inspection system for all Bahamas-based vessels 16 feet and longer would transform the “poorly policed” sector and enable it to match the regulatory standards set by other Caribbean nations such as Jamaica.
Estimating that “between 60-70 percent” of all pleasure and recreational vessels in Bahamian waters fail to pay their annual licence and inspection fees, he argued that Anchors Down’s offer to implement a process similar to that employed by the Road Traffic Department for vehicle licensing would boost the government’s tax take from the industry by at least “$5m-plus annually”.
Mr Beneby, a qualified marine surveyor with 10 years’ experience, showed this newspaper samples of color-coded inspection stickers that Anchor’s Down would affix to each vessel that passes its proposed annual safety and seaworthiness checklist.
Acknowledging that “boat owners might not want to hear this” given that they would have to pay an additional fee, he explained that outsourcing the inspection process to Anchors Down would not deprive the government of any revenue but actually increase it.
Pledging that the inspection fee’s “low-cost sliding scale” would not “kill the public”, Mr Beneby said the Port Department and Public Treasury would still receive 100 percent of the licence fees that they currently earn. And, with Anchors Down mandated to inspect all vessels the length and breadth of The Bahamas, revenues would increase through more boats being caught in the net.
Mr Beneby added that Anchors Down, whose partners also include Michael Ferguson, a former Royal Bahamas Defence Force Marine, and Captain Matthew Stuart, would also use the inspection process to create an electronic vessel ownership database for the Port Department.
He explained that photos would be taken of all vessels at the time of inspection, and these - together with their beneficial owner’s passport, identification and contact details - would be automated through inclusion on a computerised database that was linked to both the Defence Force and Royal Bahamas Police Force.
Mr Beneby said this would help bring order and regulation to The Bahamas’ waters, and revealed that the third and final element of Anchors Down’s proposal was the recruitment and training of dock agents to police the mailboat industry, Potter’s Cay and other government docks.
These agents, he added, would be responsible for checking both the mailboat cargo manifests and passenger numbers at their ports of departure and entry. Besides helping to counter the smuggling of illegal goods, such as firearms and drugs, plus illegal immigrants, Mr Beneby said such checks would also make vessels safer by preventing over-loading and other unsafe practices.
Arguing that the Port Department lacks the manpower, resources and expertise to properly regulate the domestic maritime industry, the Anchors Down president said there were numerous examples of how failed oversight had resulted in Bahamians losing their lives.
He pointed to the four deaths, and 25 injuries, many of which were life-altering, that resulted from the crane collapse when the Sea Hauler and United Star collided in August 2003. The subsequent Wreck Commission inquiry found that the Government was liable because it had failed to check whether both vessels had the necessary insurance when licensing them.
More recent tragedies include the fatal boat Exuma boat explosion in 2018, for which the owner of Four C’s Adventures and one of his captains will stand trial later this year accused of negligence in the death of one US tourist and injuries to multiple other passengers on the chartered tour boat,
“I’m just concerned that no one seems to have the passion, the drive to deal with this thing,” Mr Beneby told Tribune Business. “The industry is poorly policed. The Port Department does not have the manpower, it does not have the resources, to police boat owners according to the Act. We’ve had numerous accidents out at sea, missing vessels and missing persons.”
The House of Assembly last year debated upgrades to the principal Act governing the industry, the Commercial Recreational Watercraft (Amendment) Bill, and also the Water Skiing and Motor Boat Control (Amendment) Bill, but they went into committee stage and did not pass automatically.
Revealing that he and Anchors Down had been inspired by “all the irregularities going on”, Mr Beneby said its two-year effort to have the Government adopt their proposal appeared to have ground to “a standstill” after seemingly gaining initial “traction” at both ministries.
He showed Tribune Business numerous letters and correspondence sent to the Minnis administration’s two transport ministers, Frankie Campbell and now Renward Wells, plus Marvin Dames, minister of national security, since 2018 detailing their plans to transform domestic maritime regulation.
Replies were received from Eugene Poitier and Cora Colebrooke, then-acting permanent secretaries in the Ministry of National Security and Ministry of Transport, respectively, informing Anchors Down that its plans had been sent for review to the defence and police forces and “technical officers”.
Suggesting that there appeared to be some reluctance on the Government’s part to let go, for fear that outsourcing the inspection process will lose it revenues, Mr Beneby told Tribune Business: “We want to go through the right channels and right door. When it comes to human life there’s no back door or anything. The only concern is human life.
“This whole thing encompasses the Government collecting revenues, human safety and deterring crime. That’s the whole goal of the situation and the three main things we are covering. I think it’s a good idea and everyone I talk to says it’s a superb idea. It is just as important as the plane charter industry that we regulate at the airport.
“We’ve had enough. How much more lessons do we need to learn? We’ve had enough accidents over the past years. We’ve had enough accidents to teach us our lesson, but yet everyone is still talking about it. How many more have to die? How many more have to go missing? How many more boat accidents do we need to let us learn our lesson and stop talking? How many more lessons do we need?”
Mr Beneby argued that the safety of both Bahamians and tourists is being continually endangered by vessels that are unsafe, unseaworthy, and have not been properly inspected, licensed or insured. This, he added, was frequently exacerbated by the practice of overloading boats, not properly securing cargos and failing to protect health/the environment with correct pollution controls.
Anchors Down’s proposed inspection system would require all vessel owners in Bahamian waters to take their vessel through the process two months after their birth month, with commercial craft inspected in May.
“Who’s making the money? It’s certainly not the Government that’s collecting it,” Mr Beneby said of current fee income. “The majority of commercial vessels are licensed, but pleasure and recreational craft, I would say between 60 percent to 70 percent of them throughout the country are not inspected and licensed.
“In most cases the fees are not paid. Anyone can go into Kelly’s, buy the letters and numbers and stick them on their vessel. It takes professionals like myself to come up with ideas for the Government at a time when it is in dire need of funds. Boat owners may not want to be hearing this, as it’s another fee for their boats, but it’s for their safety.
“In the recreational sector, the average Bahamian doesn’t see it, but you’re looking at about $5m-plus in licensing and inspection fees. I’m telling you that’s a grave loss for the Port Department and it could be more.”
Revealing that Anchors Down’s safety and seaworthiness checks will employ the American Boat and Yacht Council standards, Mr Beneby explained that owners would receive an inspection slip once they passed which had to be taken to the Port Department so they could then pay their licensing/registration fee.
Promising that the inspection fee levied by Anchors Down would “not be exorbitant”, he added that the Government would receive a further revenue boost from the VAT levied on this. “The main benefit from my perspective is that the industry would definitely be on par with our Caribbean contemporaries,” Mr Beneby said, noting that Jamaica and Cayman have already outsourced their inspection,
“Creating the vessel database would assist the Port Department in identifying the amount of vessels in The Bahamas, and it would also help law enforcement to keep up with illegal activities on the open seas on The Bahamas. The Port Department would have complete information on the owner and particulars of the vessel, and they’d be able to identify the vessel anywhere.”
Mr Beneby said Anchors Down’s plan would also create jobs through the trained dock agents that would be stationed at Potter’s Cay. “Before any mailboat gets under way and leaves Potter’s Cay, agents would have to verify the cargo manifest as well as the amount of passengers on board,” he told Tribune Business.
“The mailboats would receive a release order from the agents or the Port Department. When they arrive at their destination, prior to anyone leaving, the agent has to be there to receive the release order and verify the number of passengers on board and the cargo.”
Anchors Down had also partnered with a Canadian company to conduct sniffer dog searches of vessels at Potter’s Cay, which has long been considered a primary entry and transhipment point for drugs, firearms and other smuggled or illegal contraband coming into and moving around The Bahamas.