Who Owns the Water?
March 18, 2004
This past Monday, we rode our dinghy across Elizabeth Harbour and into George Town to attend a public meeting. Ron Knaggs of the trawler "Latitude", the unofficial mayor of the George Town cruising community, had organized the meeting to discuss a topic that seriously affects both visiting cruisers and Bahamian residents: who owns and controls the water in the Bahamas? Over a hundred people gathered in the town's central park to hear about recent events that had put into question the public's right of access to the water surrounding private islands. The main incident that sparked the debate involved Horst and Shariffa Grosser on the sailboat "Sunborne". Horst described for us what had happened to him last month at Musha Cay, some 35 miles northwest of George Town.
Musha Cay is the site of a 150 acre foreign owned corporate resort that caters to "celebrity" guests. The resort owners don't like boats anchoring in front of their development. They claim transient boats obstruct their swimming and water sports area and may even pose a security threat. In the past, we've heard resort workers on the radio tell cruisers that they must leave the area. Sometimes the visiting boats comply, sometimes they don't. Those who defy the orders to leave often cite Bahamian law that gives the public the right to anchor anywhere in the country and to have beach access up to the mean high water mark.
When "Sunborne" and three other boats anchored off Musha Cay on February 3rd, an armed caretaker came out in a powerboat and told them to leave. Horst stood his ground while the others weighed anchor. The caretaker returned a half hour later brandishing a piece of paper. Horst recalled, "The paper didn't look very official, but he claimed it was a swimming area permit that banned anchoring. He told me that if I didn't leave, my cruising permit would be revoked and I wouldn't be allowed back into the country." He and Shariffa left, but not before taking photos and making measurements of the anchorage.
In preparing for the meeting, Ron sought a legal opinion from Nassau and met with Captain Tony Allens, the head of the Bahamas Port Department. Captain Allens confirmed that members of the public, including foreign cruisers, have the right to anchor off private islands and to go ashore below the mean high water mark. He qualified this by saying that port officials have the authority to restrict anchoring in certain swimming areas and in ship channels. A letter was issued to the Musha Cay resort owners recognizing a "motorized swim area" and ship channel in front of their development (the only other official swim area in the Bahamas is in front of a luxury resort in Nassau). This was the document that had been shown to Horst. A copy of it was displayed at the meeting.
The problem with the letter is that it doesn't define the extent of the swim area or the ship channel. Neither one is marked on a chart or designated by buoys in the water. Captain Allens told Ron that he seemed to recall that the swim area extended 200 yards from the beach and the ship channel went another 150 yards beyond that. According to Horst's measurements, "Sunborne" was well outside this area. Even if "Sunborne" HAD infringed on the no anchoring zone, Ron's legal advice stated that the only bodies who had the authority to enforce the anchoring ban were the Bahamian police, defence force, port authority, or local administrator. Parties found guilty of violating the ban are subject to a fine; their cruising permits are unaffected. It would appear that the Musha Cay resort operators had exaggerated the restrictions mentioned in the letter, chose to enforce the restrictions themselves, and fabricated possible penalties.
Ron explained that it was still unclear how the matter was going to be resolved. The appropriate officials were well aware of the incident; it had been front page news in the local newspaper. Ron suggested boaters carefully document any future disputes, but not incite altercations. The immediate concern of many of those attending the meeting was whether or not they should anchor their boats at Musha Cay. It's a convenient stopover point on the way to and from George Town. It may be of little comfort knowing you have a legal right to be there if you're confronted by an armed guard who has a different view on the subject.
Some suggested the simplest solution was for cruisers to avoid Musha Cay altogether. One Bahamian in the audience observed that cruisers usually prefer hanging out in quieter, more secluded areas. Other than making a point, why would you choose to anchor in a developed bay that's buzzing with jet skis?
Others attending the meeting felt that the Musha Cay incident had broader implications. Mike Wohlstein of the sailboat "Sun-N-Sail" asked, "What's going to stop every landowner in the Exumas from declaring a swimming zone in front of his property?"
Michael Minns, the owner of George Town's main supermarket, agreed, "I'm outraged that private interests are being given exclusionary rights at the expense of other visitors. For 44 years, I've been visiting the Exuma cays -- virtually all of them are privately owned. This is totally unacceptable because it may lead to other landowners doing the same thing."
Government representatives at the meeting reassured the audience that they were looking for solutions that would balance private and public interests. Cecil Smith, an elected council member for the district that includes Musha Cay, invited feedback from cruisers on any future incidents. While he affirmed that the Musha Cay owners had gone through the proper channels in obtaining their swimming area designation, he agreed that it should be better defined on paper and clearly marked on the water. He also stated that the resort operators didn't have the authority to enforce the anchoring ban themselves and suggested cruisers contact him by radio if they're harassed by the workers at Musha Cay.
Charity Armbrister, the senior manager of the local Ministry of Tourism office, tried to allay fears that the government didn't value foreign cruisers as much as foreign property owners. "Tourism is our number one industry and every visitor is significant. You are all very important to us," she said.
In response, a few well intentioned cruisers suggested the Bahamian authorities consider changing their country's laws and legal procedures. They felt the Bahamas could benefit from studying what's in place in the States and Canada. We question this advice. We've observed over the years that anchoring appears to be far more threatened in North America than it is in the Bahamas. Many municipalities in Florida now restrict or ban anchoring altogether within their jurisdictions. In some places you can anchor out but aren't allowed to land your dinghy. When we visited New England last summer, it was impossible to anchor in many of the popular harbours because they were choked with private mooring buoys. Are these the examples we want Bahamians to emulate?
As the meeting was winding up, Mike Davidson of the trawler "Callaway" cautioned, "Let's not blow things out of proportion. This is an isolated incident. We don't want to give the impression that anchoring is banned in the Bahamas." We agree. It seems that the local authorities are taking the concerns of cruisers and their own citizens seriously. While they're searching for solutions to apply in Bahamian waters, we should be doing the same for the waters we left behind.