The passengers were locked in with door hatches that opened up. While one door was closed shut, the other was tied with a piece of rope, while a rubber buoy served as its door stop. When the boat reached its destination the crew took a minute to “untie the knot” and let the passengers out. This was the described experience of a passenger in October 2009, on the 60 foot Catamaran that provides a life link between Utila and La Ceiba.
Several passengers contacted Bay Islands Voice concerned about the safety of travel of the Utila Princess II catamaran. “We call it the shake and bake. It shakes all the time and you bake from the heat,” said Dr. John McVay, a Utila resident, about the Utila Princess II. “If I know they will use the catamaran, not the bigger boat, I fly, or just stay at home,” said one La Ceiba resident who travels to Utila for business once a month.
The Utila Princess II boat was originally brought in from the Bahamas where it served on short inter-island journeys. The journey between La Ceiba and Utila produced spray and the top of the boat was only covered with plastic covers. Because of complaints that passengers were still getting wet in rough weather, the owner of the boat, Bruce Wardlay, removed the temporary protection and welded aluminum plates to its top structure. Some passengers feared this made the boat more top heavy, vulnerable to capsizing, and, as it is a catamaran, it would not “bounce up.”
When asked about passenger concerns, Wardlay replied that the aluminum addition did not compromise the structure of the boat, adding only 500lbs. to the total weight of the boat. Wardlay has been making several improvements to the Princess II. The new marine-type, water-cooled generator installed in the hull of the ship in December 2009 provided additional low weight to the craft, giving extra stability. The generator replaced the old system which could not handle the air conditioning system. Passengers will have air conditioning in 2010. As for the doors, the new air conditioning system might influence the crew to use the standard marine-type dog latches properly, without propping the door open. “There are two exits in the front, and two in the back, and all exit doors can be opened from both sides,” assured Wardlay. “There would be no problem getting passengers out of the boat.” Tying doors shut are a violation of maritime safety codes and law in accordance with US Coast Guard standards.
Concerns for passenger safety were also raised when the La Ceiba port captain re-examined the boat’s certification after its structure and passenger areas were modified. In July the Utila Princess II certification from 100 passengers was reduced to 70-75, by the La Ceiba Port Captain. “We operate under a tightly governed system that is constantly behind us on safety,” said Wardlay. “The US Coast Guard granted the craft 125 passenger status, 20 miles off shore. The rules of the Honduran Mercantile Marine Division are much stricter.”
The cost of the 21 mile journey to Utila is Lps. 500 per person, as opposed to the Lps. 524 for the 40 mile trip to Roatan, on the much larger Galaxy II. Both Guanaja’s Bimini Breeze and Roatan’s Galaxy II are bigger boats. The 21 mile journey is covered in 1:05 minutes by the Princess II. If there is high demand, the owners of the boat will substitute the Utila Princess II with Princess III, a bigger, monohull and more seaworthy boat, according to Kandy Ruby, Manager of the Princess II, who is working in San Andres, Columbia.
According to Robilio Rivera, La Ceiba port Captain, in case a Honduran passenger boat would go down, the emergency signal would be received by the National Port Agency in Tegucigalpa, who would then contact individual port captains in La Ceiba and the Bay Islands. On all three Bay Island passenger boats bringing passengers between mainland Honduras and the Bay Islands, it is mandatory to be equipped with emergency, satellite maintained rescue beacons. Automatic response and rescue procedures are executed through VHF radio, GPS, radar, and cell phones. In December, Wardlay was also in the process of replacing the existing standardized equipment with newer, state-of-the-art radar and GPS systems in The Princess II.
“Honduras is top in the region as far as maritime safety,” says Emilio Ulloa, a boat inspector, based in La Ceiba. If the Utila Princess II catamaran was to capsize, the small emergency rafts located on the boat’s roof would automatically free. “It would take a 40 ft. wave to capsize that boat,” said Wardlay. “And we certainly would not be running in that type of hurricane weather.” [/private]