Now that my boat is launched I’m in the process of getting up to code on certain safety regulations. So I’ve got to go and equip myself with flares, and USCG approved fire extinguishers (not one, but two, I believe, for my 28ft boat!), and a “Pollution Placard’… Even though most of this is stuff I would buy anyway before going offshore, I find it quite irritating to be told what is and isn’t safe- not only is it taking the decision out of my hands but the implication is that I, the ‘recreational boater’, can’t be trusted to take care of myself or to make my own decisions about personal safety. Never mind that all I’m doing at the moment is sailing on Lake Pontchartrain, an effectively closed body of water, in a very seaworthy little boat. I’ve still got to have those flares. To sail without them would be ‘irresponsible’.
Of course there’s some reasoning behind this, as there always is with laws which require us to conform to some safety standard, but in this case I just can’t buy into it. Basically, it comes down to money. The US Coast Guard is the leading rescue organization here in the US, rescuing an average of 114 people per day at an annual cost of $680 million (source). That’s a lot of money because Search and Rescue operations add up quick. Consider that a rescue by USCG boat or helicopter costs well over $1000 an hour, just to operate the vehicle. Planes are easily five times that.
|Nice photo, but that’s a couple thousand dollars an hour of equipment (from USCG)|
Yet this is all kindly provided as a free service. The USCG (and National Park Service, another big-name rescue agency) have no avenues by which to charge a rescuee, even if they are clearly at fault. This is the crux of the argument behind safety regulation – if public agencies largely bear the cost of SAR operations then they should have a mandate to set safety requirements which they believe will minimize the number of people they have to rescue.
There is a kind of logic there, and for various reasons a lot of people buy into it. In the sailing community in particular people tend to make a point of being well-informed and equipped when it comes to safety. Many cruisers, for instance, won’t put to sea without SOLAS-approved flares, which are much pricier than the garden-variety pyrotechnics which still fulfill USCG regulations.
|Not bad, huh? A SOLAS-approved flare at night (BoatUS)|
Now when you’re voluntarily equipping yourself with with better-than-required safety gear, what’s the harm in a law which also serves as a convenient guideline for basic safety at sea? It would be hard to find fault with such a position. Others accept that these regulations act as a buffer to protect their tax dollars, which is a point that I’ll address in a moment.
However, there is a another more insidious category of people who fuel these safety regulations. I am talking about those self-appointed Guardians of the Public who feel the need, nay the duty, to inspect the boat, equipment, even the motivations of another skipper in order to pass judgement as to their right to be on the water. This is done, of course, under the auspices of protecting the coffers of the Taxpaying Public but is often little more than an excuse to throw ridicule and vitriol at someone who chooses to sail in a unconventional manner. Common targets include singlehanders (‘they’ll run someone else down, unable to keep a proper watch’), those who sail without an engine (‘they can’t possibly be a competent enough sailor to get around without an engine, after all I couldn’t do that and I’m a great sailor!’), and DIY-ers who are willing to take risks based on confidence in their own handiwork, or abilities to repair their vessel (‘they’ll dump the costs of their ill-prepared boats onto the rest of us’). Recent noteworthy recipients of this vitriol include Laura Dekker the 15-year old woman who recently single-handed the globe and Reid Stowe, the itinerant (maybe infamous) sailor who set off not so long ago on his way to Guyana. When these sailors were casting off there was a small but very vocal minority who argued that they should not be allowed to set sail, using justifications which were little more than value judgements about the condition of Stowe’s boat or whether a young woman can be mentally and physically capable of a solo circumnavigation. This is dangerous ground, folks. Sure, these are extremes but it’s these big, ugly flare-ups of self-aggrandizing judgement which normalize the nasty little comments that are far too often directed at those who choose to take to the sea on their own terms.
|Laura Dekker aboard ‘Guppy’|
Now I’ll admit that in these particular examples there is plenty of room for debate about things like ‘media strategies’, and what exactly constitutes achievement vis--vis self-aggrandizement (though Dekker’s personal motive seemed to be a straightforward desire to sail ’round the world, I’m not so sure about others who involved themselves in her publicity). However, such debates have nothing to do with either safety or one’s right to put to sea. Nonetheless, because people like Dekker and Stowe had their fifteen minutes of fame in the sailing world they were subjected to the scrutiny of many armchair sailors, and to some they were deemed unworthy. Never mind that Dekker had spent significant time training for her trip, was equipped with the latest technology, and was voluntarily taking on risks that largely extended only to her. After all, she’s a girl and a young one at that! Never mind that Stowe had proved his mettle and competency with repairs at sea which most skippers would be unable to do at the dock, including remaking his bowsprit and headsails. He’s just a wingnut who can’t afford to maintain his boat. So, the argument goes, these people should not be allowed to go to sea because there is a chance that their undertaking would end in an ‘undeserving’ rescue billed to the Taxpaying Public.
|Reid Stowe doing extensive repairs to his bowsprit while at sea|
What a load! The rescue drain on our tax dollars isn’t coming from competent, self-reliant sailors like Dekker and Stowe. It’s coming from these people who were swamped after taking a 14-foot boat out in heavy seas, or this guy who ran out of fuel just shy of a marina, or these people who ran out of gas boating on a lake and set some trees on fire in order to draw attention to their plight (well, ok, that one was in Canada). Then there was this pair who lost the boat they were supposed to be delivering because they put to sea in rough conditions and ran out of fuel. I could find plenty more. Every time some fool calls up the Coast Gaurd on their cell phone because they ran out of gas a half-mile offshore or took their open 14-foot skiff out in six-foot swells, it costs the public thousands of dollars, and sometimes much, much more. Consider this recent case where a good samaritan died rescuing a family who had run out of gas on the Mississippi in a small boat
|This boat ran aground after the delivery crew ran out of fuel!|
Well what of it? If these people keep needing rescuing than it must be that they were in the water without their requisite safety gear, right? Actually, no. In all of these reports there is no mention that boaters lacked safety gear. In fact nearly all had no problems putting out a distress call. These people ran out of gas, or went out in much larger seas or with more passengers than their boats were built for, and didn’t know what to do when things got hairy.
In a time when even the smallest boats are equipped with GPS and VHF and cell phones and PLB’s and whatnot the big drain on our SAR teams is not a lack safety gear, it’s over-reliance on this gear by people whose false confidence is backed by the knowledge that worst comes to worst they can just hit.the distress button on their DSC radio. In such cases I believe our safety gear and regulations are part of the problem. By giving people a sort of safety checklist there is an implication that one does not need an awareness of their craft and environment -as long as the USCG regulations are met, one is ‘safe’ and doesn’t need to give much more thought to their situation. Yet how many boatowners think that just because the USCG doesn’t require one it is safe to go offshore without an emergency fuel reserve in a boat which is powered solely by an engine and has a single fuel tank? Or that since that big storm passed over a day ago the waters must be calm enough for their Boston Whaler? The thing is, in a sense, these fools are right. Because as long as they have their VHF, or even just a cell phone, the Coast Guard will be able to find them, and they will be rescued, and it won’t cost them a dime. And that’s the real problem.
So what if, instead of requiring three flares and two fire extinguishers and etc etc etc… we allowed people the freedom to decide which safety equipment is best for them and started putting some value on a skipper’s self-reliance and knowledge of their particular boat and situation. Instead of requiring compliance with often outdated safety regulations why not just send people the bill when they decide to call up the Coast Guard for a free tow to the fuel dock? With the amount SAR would save in such cases they could certainly afford to be magnanimous about waiving the bill for the occasional self-reliant mariner who calls for rescue only after duly exhausting all other options.