After two tourists died in Virgin Islands waters within two weeks, police have provided few details, but friends and family members are calling for increased marine safety in the territory.
Zdenek Tesar, a 52-year-old tourist from Canada, died on Dec. 20 in the waters off Virgin Gorda.
And on Friday, John LaGrassa and Elizabeth Barry were run over by a boat while snorkeling off Guana Island. Both sustained injuries, and Mr. LaGrassa was pronounced dead after being transported to the hospital.
The Royal Virgin IslandsPolice Force reported only that both deaths were a result of marine “incidents,” and declined to provide more details about the circumstances of either.
Mr. LaGrassa’s friend Jim Hedleston, however, told the Beacon that Mr. LaGrassa died after a powerboat named Sovereign ran over him and Ms. Barry while turning on full plane. The two were snorkeling hand-in-hand and were guests of the boat Arabella, owned by the Manhattan Yacht Club.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Mr. Hedleston, who was at the scene when the incident occurred. “This was an avoidable tragedy. If the captain of the Sovereign had simply chosen to go behind Arabella instead of in front of us into the anchorage, this would not have happened.”
It was less than a week since Mr. Hedleston lost his friend, but he wasted no time in speaking up about the tragic event and advocating for changes in marine law.
Call for change
Noting that this was the second death of a tourist within two weeks, Mr. Hedleston hopes that the death will be a tipping point leading to increased safety on the water and stronger enforcement of regulations.
He plans to launch a pilot programme on North Sound that would create lanes for ferries and people transiting the channel, blocking off areas where people can enjoy water sports without having to worry about incoming traffic.
Enforcement of the rules is very important, he said.
Citing examples of boating laws in Connecticut, where he’s from, Mr. Hedleston placed emphasis on consequences that would make people pay more attention to their surroundings.
One possible penalty would be taking away licences or boats if someone accumulates offences.
“We can openly start talking about water safety,” Mr. Hedleston said. “Now, I know that at least the ferry drivers around here are on heightened alert. People are now looking for swimmers constantly and slowing down. The problem is that we’re all just in a hurry.”
With a proposal in hand and plans for a programme coming together, Mr. Hedleston is working with stakeholders and boat operators. He plans to meet with government representatives as well.
Mr. LaGrassa was here with Ms. Barry to celebrate and officiate the wedding of the commodore of the Manhattan Yacht Club, where Mr. LaGrassa served as the vice commodore.
There were several passengers on the Arabella, including owners of boating companies in Bermuda, a six-time America’s Cup champion, and others. After the accident, they put their heads together and compiled regulations found in the Mediterranean, New York, Bermuda and other places.
This is what Mr. Hedleston is promoting in the territory after the loss of his close friend.
“It’s very hard to process this kind of thing,” he said. “You’re with someone who was very vibrant. … He was active in all kinds of watersports and was a very active surfer, paddleboarder.”
Mr. LaGrassa was born in 1961 and grew up in Long Island, New York. Mr. Hedleston described him as “a natural leader” who was a licensed captain. The two met through the Manhattan Yacht Club, where Mr. Hedleston also met his wife.
“John was so intertwined with our lives,” he said, remembering the vacations he’s taken with Mr. LaGrassa over the years.
Mr. Hedleston has launched a new Facebook page called “SLOW DOWN: You’re on Island Time.”