Port Authority steps up safety enforcement

If you follow U.S. news you're aware of the big controversy over who runs things at a number of major U.S. ports. The question revolves around security in an insecure age. Well, those same considerations hold for Belize... and today I went on patrol to see for myself.

Jacqueline Woods, Reporting
The Port State Control Department is a new arm of the Belize Port Authority. Its small team of boarding and patrol officers conduct checks on all foreign and local vessels to see that security and safety is maintained at all times in our territorial waters.

All vessels, whether private or commercial, are inspected for proper registration. The boat’s captain is checked for the required documents to operate at sea. On any cruise ship day, the officers establish a security zone to protect these giant ships and their thousands of passengers.

Michael Jenkins, Port State Control Officer, B.P.A.
“We try to hold a one thousand foot perimeter around the ships so as to keep unauthorised vessels from approaching or coming near the ships, especially these times with terrorists and what have you.”

“We are trying to achieve security onboard the ship and safety. We check for the certificates of each passenger or crew onboard and making sure that they are well qualified to hold that position.”

“We are in control of the territorial waters of Belize, which in that’s from the north to the south and going as far as Lighthouse Reef and twelve miles from Lighthouse Reef to the west, so that is a very large area that we have responsibility of.”

The work can be overwhelming because these officers’ resources are limited. But despite the drawbacks, a large number of inspections are made and citations written.

Michael Jenkins
“Anywhere from ten to thirty people depending on the area that you are in. For instance, in San Pedro there are much more vessels in that concentrated area, so you tend to have more summons and warnings being given out.”

Today we accompanied B.P.A. boat captain Godfrey McKoy and Port State Control Officer Michael Jenkins on one of their routine exercises in the Belize City Harbour.

port State Patrol Officer
“We are doing a random check on the vessel for safety, for sea going certificates and for your masters license. ... Sir can we board your vessel?”

Once onboard, the boat captain is checked for his license and sea going certificate.

Michael Jenkins
“When we look at the seagoing certificates, it has on all the requirements that that boat must carry at all times. All the equipment such as the life jackets, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, and we have the distress signals which is not really mandatory because of the regulations that regulates the importation of these devices.”

This boat captain from Triple J passed the inspection and was allowed to continue on his journey.

Jacqueline Woods
“In just a little over a year over five hundred boat captains, vessel owners and other parties have been taken to court for a number of violations. According to the Port State control office most boat accidents are caused by negligence.”

According to Jenkins, their primary goal is to ensure that all vessels are registered and licensed and that boat safety is promoted. Today as cruise ship tourists were being ferried to various sites, officers spotted the boat Celina Tours Two which appeared to be overloaded with passengers. The tourists were making their way to Caye Caulker and the officers wanted to make sure that the trip would be a safe one.

The boat’s captain, William Johnson, did produce his license, but he was not in possession of a seagoing certificate, nor was the vessel equipped with a fire extinguisher.

Captain Johnson was ordered to return to the dock. The passengers were then transferred to another boat and continued on their trip. Johnson says he has been a boat captain for five years, but he was not aware of certain regulations and should not have been turned back.

William Johnson, Boat Captain
“Well I feel embarrass because they take off all my people off my boat just for a seagoing certificate that the owner of the boat didn’t represent to me, you know what I am saying.”

Jacqueline Woods
“So you don’t believe you should be held responsible although in reality you are the captain of this vessel?”

William Johnson
“They are telling me that I am gonna be getting a summons for that. That’s very ridiculous for me to get a summons that I do not know about. I mean I did not know that I had to have a—the owner of the boat just come and tell me well I have a trip and he didn’t give me the certificate.”
Jacqueline Woods
“As a boat captain you are not aware of the requirements?”

William Johnson
“Well I did not know of the requirements, I mean, you know.”

Johnson maintains he did not overload his boat and that the vessel had the required number of passengers onboard.

William Johnson
“I don’t know, I don’t think that the vessel was overloaded, it just have the maximum passengers in there. I think it required for like thirty people and we had like what, twenty-seven?”

A spokesperson for the boat owner did contact News Five to say that the boat was not overloaded. According to Jenkins, however, the vessel allowed to carry twenty-seven passengers and two crew members. Their inspection revealed that the boat had a total of thirty-two persons onboard. Overloading is one of the most common offences and carries a fine of fifty dollars per excess passenger, while the lack of a certificate can cost a maximum of a thousand dollar fine. Today B.P.A. is educating the marine community through a new initiative.

Michael Jenkins
“The brochure is to inform the public of all the requirements and the safety tips and the numbers that you can call in case of an emergency.”

“We have a lot of collaboration with the other authorities such as the Coast Guard and Maritime Wing. When there is any need for any assistance, they are just a stones throw away.”

In the meantime, as boat captains, owners, and families make plans for their Easter vacation, the B.P.A. offered this advice for a safe holiday.

Michael Jenkins
“A lot of passengers to and from the cayes to shore and we want to let the public know that there are safety regulations in place and when boarding a ship or vessel you must ask for a life jacket, and make sure that the captain is not drinking.”

If you are interested in obtaining a copy of the brochure it is available at the Belize Port Authority. You can also access information at the B.P.A.'s email address at bzportauth@btl.net or www.portauthority.bz.