Maritime accident protocol ignored; Guatemalan-owned yacht allowed to leave after running aground on the reef
SOUTH WATER CAYE, Stann Creek District, Wed. Nov. 1, 2017–There appear to have been serious breaches by Belizean authorities of the protocol relating to a maritime accident when they released a 60-foot yacht, Amador, a US-registered vessel that had run aground on the Belize Barrier Reef near South Water Caye, which is about 21 miles southeast of Dangriga Town. The incident reportedly occurred on Saturday night, October 21.
Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported that after the S.O.S. of the yacht’s owner, Guatemalan singer Carlos Peña, went out on his Facebook page, the Guatemalan consulate in Belize indicated that a rescue boat had left in search of the stricken boat. No local authority we interviewed could tell us where the rescue boat came from.
The accident reportedly occurred when one of the yacht’s engines failed and it drifted onto the reef. A local expert explained to us that the yacht would still have had sufficient power to navigate safely, unless weather conditions were overwhelming.
According to the Meteorology Department, the weather on October 21, around the time the yacht grounded, “was unstable, with periods of rain and thunderstorms mostly along the coast”. There was no claim in the “reports” about weather being a factor in the grounding, however.
The exact destination of the yacht was not disclosed to Belizean authorities although it is said that passengers checked in at the Belize Customs on San Pedro Ambergris Caye and reported that the yacht, with its 8 passengers, two crew members, and captain, Gustavo Aleojos Andres Jansa, was heading in the direction of Placencia.
Exactly what are the protocols in place for maritime accidents? Amandala asked retired Belize Defence Force Major Lloyd Jones, who is also a former Ports Commissioner, to explain exactly what the procedures are.
Major Jones said, “Once it comes to the attention of any of the government officials, they should report it to the Ports Commissioner, who is responsible for maritime safety, supported by the Coast Guard. The Ports Commissioner would issue what we call a detention order, in effect, prohibiting the vessel from sailing, and this is whether it is a Belizean or foreign vessel. So it is a prohibition of sailing notice. This means the vessel cannot do anything without the authority of the Ports Commissioner.”
Major Jones said the Ports Commissioner would then inform the other agencies — the Fisheries Department, Coast Guard, Immigration Department, the Department of the Environment, and they would normally send out a team to determine the damage that was done. Then, they would quantify that and make a claim against the owner of the vessel. Once the owner satisfies that claim, then the prohibition of sailing is lifted and the vessel is free to leave.
Regarding cases in which the vessel is foreign-owned, Major Jones said, “You would want to detain the vessel. It could take between 5 to 7 working days to organize the team to go to the location. Provided that it has satisfied the claim, only then should the vessel be permitted to leave.”
“The Fisheries Department would then do an assessment of the damages, because they are the ones who have the expertise to calculate reef damages and so on. The Department of the Environment looks more to the overall environmental damage, and if whether or not any pollutants were introduced,” Major Jones explained.
Amandala did a telephone interview with Fisheries Administrator, Beverly Wade, who told our newspaper that her department was unable to go to the site where the Amador ran aground, due to the weather conditions. Wade said, however, that the Fisheries Department has a marine reserve in the area where the Amador ran aground.
Ports Commissioner, Merlene Bailey-Martinez, told Amandala that the Amador was removed from the reef by two vessels that were in the area.
Amandala asked Bailey-Martinez if the two boats that freed the yacht from the reef were Belizean vessels.
“That is something we don’t know as yet. We are still looking into the matter,” Bailey-Martinez said. “Safety is our number one issue, to make sure the seafarers are safe,” she noted.
Bailey-Martinez said that a team did go out, “but they did not conduct any dives, because of the weather condition. They have not been back out since then. It is still in abeyance.”
We asked the Ports Commissioner what they are tasked to do when something like this happens.
“We would normally conduct an inquiry into the circumstances, and we normally conduct it along with the Department of the Environment, to conduct an assessment to determine if there is any damage that the vessel can be charged for,” Bailey-Martinez said.
“The fact that the yacht was allowed to leave is of some concern to the Port Authority, especially if it is established that damage did occur. As I said, DOE would establish that. We would look at the condition of the vessel and the safety of the seafarers,” Bailey-Martinez disclosed.
Media reports said that the Coast Guard was present when the yacht was removed. Amandala asked Bailey-Martinez whose call it was to issue the detention order.
“The Coast Guard is authorized to do a preliminary assessment. If a detention order is warranted, then we would issue the detention order,” said the Ports Commissioner.
Amandala stopped by the Coast Guard headquarters to get an interview with the Coast Guard Deputy Commander, Elton Bennett. A guard at the entrance to the compound called Commander Bennett to inform him that we were at the gate and wanted to ask him some questions about the yacht, Amador, which ran aground in Belizean waters.
Commander Bennett relayed a message that he was busy. When asked when he would be free to do an interview, the message relayed was that he would not grant us an interview. Bennett had told Love FM that the incident was minor; therefore, there wasn’t any need to detain the vessel.
Apparently, the Coast Guard was the only Belizean authority to witness the removal of the Amador from off the reef, and it is also obvious that they have knowledge of which two boats removed the Amador from the reef.
We also attempted to get the Department of the Environment’s side of this story, but when we called for the Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria, his secretary said he was unable to speak, but he would call us back. Alegria never called back, and when we called again on the second day, his secretary said that he was not in office, but our message was relayed to him.
Belizean authorities rolled over in a similar manner for the last vessel under Guatemalan command to run aground in Belize. Amandala’s Rowland Parks reported in his story, “GOB gives Guat gunboat ‘red carpet’ treatment”, that “Guatemalan naval vessel GC 651 Tescum Uma, which illegally entered Belize territorial waters on Wednesday night ( June 11, 2015) and ended up running aground on Glover’s Reef Atoll, near Middle Caye, was removed from the reef yesterday, Sunday, and was given clearance, presumably on instructions by Prime Minister Dean Barrow to both Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred Elrington and National Security Minister John Saldivar, to return to Guatemala immediately, even before damage assessment by the Department of the Environment is completed. Belizeans learned of the so-called ‘accident’ involving the 65-foot Guatemalan gunboat on Thursday morning, mostly via social media.”
No payment was ever made to Belize for damages.