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January 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 26, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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At Last, Justice in Belize

shoddy operation and its owner fined for diver’s death

from the January, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In April 2005, we gave a big Thumbs Down to Vance Cabral’s Advanced Diving in Placencia, Belize, after an Undercurrent subscriber and nine others went on a dangerous journey with them. The boat departed at 9:30 a.m. and struck a reef, but captain Vance didn’t slow down, which is probably just as well as there was no spare prop on board. And no working radio, no oxygen, no first aid kit, no flares nor running lights.

After the first dive, the group went to Glover’s Reef and waited three hours for their tanks to be refilled, departing at 3:30 p.m. After the second dive, they left for home at 5:20 p.m., with the sun sinking over the horizon. There was no GPS, the compass was not illuminated, and there was no flashlight on the boat. Luckily, a diver had two flashlights, and shined one on the compass, but Vance’s navigation skills fell short. An hour later, there were still no signs of lights from land. Vance said that he was about out of gas except for a 5-gallon reserve can. The boat apparently had been under-fueled. There were only two lifejackets, so folks started filling BCDs. They pressed Vance to call to alert someone to their situation, but he got no response – this was no surprise, since earlier in the day a diver had received a shock from the antenna when he brushed up against it, a sign of malfunction. About 7:30 p.m., a breaking wave smacked the 30-foot boat. The next one rolled it over. Some divers found themselves between the reef and the capsized boat (with its motor still running full tilt), while others were washed onto the reef. Still others were momentarily trapped under the overturned craft. Folks crawled onto the overturned boat to wait it out. The two small flashlights were the group’s only means of signaling. Fortunately, friends on shore began to worry about the group’s absence, and they contacted Turtle Inn. About 10 p.m., the Turtle Inn dive boat set out and thanks to the divers’ flashlights, found them at 3:00 a.m. They were ten miles offshore and fourteen miles south of their intended route.

So, Undercurrent warned divers to stay away, but our reach only goes so far and six months later Cabral, in a similar incident, lost a diver. On October 10, 2010, Belize Justice Oswell Legall awarded the deceased parents US$35,016, after finding that defendants Vance Cabral, owner of Advanced Diving, and divemaster Mark Tucker were negligent in their handling of divers during an October 2005 trip to Silk Caye, 22 miles east of Placencia. Cabral and Tucker had been charged criminally with negligent endangerment to life in 2006, but the charges were filed too late to be considered by the court.

On October 22, 2005, at 8:30 a.m., four divers and eight snorkelers left the Placencia dock with Cabral and Tucker in the smaller Advance II, planning to drop the snorkelers at Silk Caye and head to White Hole, 1½ miles away, with the divers. But Cabral turned back for a bigger boat and halfway into the second journey, water got into the Yamaha engine filter and cut off power, causing the boat to drift for three miles before Cabral got it re-started. At Silk Caye the snorkelers and Cabral got off and the divers and Tucker traveled to White Hole. But halfway there, water again got into the engine and shut it down for good. Attempts by tourist John Bain, an attorney, and Tucker to re-start the engine failed, and calls for help on the VHF radio were futile, as the radio did not work. Further, when Tucker dropped the boat’s anchor into the water at Bain’s suggestion, the rusty chain attached to it broke and the boat continued to drift.

Dr. Abigail Brinkman, 28, in Belize for research at a medical clinic, and three other divers decided to swim toward an island that appeared to be not far away. Tucker helped them into their gear and watched them jump over. Unable to re-start the engine or communicate on the radio, Tucker too decided to swim toward Glovers Reef, and made it two hours later. Three divers were rescued at sea, but Brinkman drowned.

Justice Legall found Cabral and Tucker guilty of negligence and neglect, writing that the defendants should have returned to dock to check the engine after it shut down the first time, despite their suggestion that this was a frequent occurrence with “bad gas” from Mexico. It was clear that the engine, anchor and VHF radio aboard were not maintained in proper working condition, and had they been, the tragedy could have been avoided. The boat should not have been out at all that day, because a small craft warning had been issued for the coast, though Cabral said he had not listened to the weather report. It was probable that the engine had other problems that ought to have been detected by the defendants before going out. The defendants tried to dodge responsibility by citing the waiver Brinkman had signed, but the judge ruled it was sufficiently ambiguous so as to make it difficult to exclude the defendants from responsibility.

Furthermore, the defendants argued that Brinkman was responsible for her own death because she chose to swim, but the judge stuck by his ruling for the family.

Deciding to abandon a boat and swim for it is a risky decision and in this case the swimmers, who were clearly inexpert regarding Belize’s waters, misjudged currents and distances. One can survive for endless days drifting in a boat at sea, so deciding to swim for it instead cuts survival time – and the likelihood of being seen and rescued.

From Undercurrent’s archives and reports in Amandala

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