Thursday, 27 June 2013


Every few months the airwaves are filled with the chilling message of one or more persons in difficulty or lost at sea.  Inevitably and with a sense of foreboding, the public is informed of the dispatch of ‘first responders’, the members of the Search and Rescue (SAR). 

This article is not about the Burton Winters tragedy, though the mere mention, of his name, evokes a tiring sadness over the loss of one so young. Nor is it about the loss of the Ryan’s Commander or even the role, responsibility and response time demanded, by a sympathetic public, of SAR.

This article is about the role of each individual who goes out on the sea.  It is about personal responsibility. 
Some people are fond of ‘calling out’ Governments, or the SAR effort, when there is even a hint that a rescue does not begin instantly. Of course, Governments should be made justify slow response time or poor logistics.  But, strangely, that is where public debate ends.  This narrative needs to change!

Everyday fishers and pleasure boaters head out on the ocean, without taking with them, the basic tools of survival, seamanship skills or common sense. 

When an incident occurs, it disappears from media focus, for reasons that are understandable; the families need privacy and time to recover or to grieve. But, over the years, such deference has done little to change a terribly embedded sub-standard culture of marine safety.  The media tactfully avoids such a discussion, too; it is a reporting mechanism.  Instruction is not its function.

At this very moment, one when we are not preoccupied with an immediate tragedy, (though it has not been that way for many days), we might well ask if SAR, the various spokespersons including police, really do anyone any favours by keeping quiet on issues of personal responsibility.  Are most of our marine ‘incidents’ really accidents?

What are the issues? There are a plethora of them, but some are fundamental:  was a Trip Plan, recording destination and the estimated time of return, left with a family member or other trusted person? Was the Operator trained to handle the boat of which he is in command, whether a kayak or a much larger vessel? Was he capable of performing in worse conditions than he expected? Did he possess basic navigation and locator equipment; a compass, VHF radio, a locator beacon, flares, reflectors and other such readily available tools?  Did the boat carry an adequate number of PDFs? Was he/party wearing appropriate clothing and other basic tools of a survival kit? Did he check weather forecasts? Was he familiar with the practices of good seamanship?

The north Atlantic is a place to be feared as much as respected, whether we go out on the sea for its economic bounty or just for sheer pleasure.  The sea demands respect, else it will exact vengeance.

Yet, all one needs to do is lurk at the entrance to Quidi Vidi, during the food fishery, to get a first-hand view of just how few understand that the sea is relentlessly unforgiving and that most ‘landlubbers’ are fundamentally unprepared.

‘Rinky dink’ boats are often a first clue as to the skills of the ‘boatsmen’, but expensive ones are no guarantee of an Operators’ expertise.

All too often a ‘day on the bay’ is really just amateur hour.  The only surprise is that the sea does not make a greater claim; but then, the fact that the inshore boat fishery is all but in the past, is likely the chief reason. 

A grim realty needs facing:  while it is not the role of SAR to ‘call out’ a delinquent party, someone, in authority, ought to.  When the evidence is overwhelming, following an incident of rescue, that authority, following a SAR Report, ought to just call things, as they see them; discretion has simply not worked.  As insensitive as it may seem, it will never be as hurtful as the pain of a waiting family or that of a tired search party.

If the incident involves a youth, parental responsibility should be reviewed. 

Perhaps, there are other ways; if so, they should be brought to the fore.

It is, admittedly, a difficult subject.  But lives hinge on our ability to discuss this problem aloud, and not just in the coffee shops. And, make no mistake about it, it is a big problem. 

Seamanship is a skillset, a vital ability to make intelligent and informed decisions.  It is not intuitive, at least for most. Too many ignore the fundamentals, especially the need to train.  

This is an age of cheap, mobile, practically miniaturized technology; VHF radio to contact SAR or a nearby vessel, GPS for navigation, EPURB or SPOT with which to send out an emergency locator beacon; a PFD, unless you are foolish enough to think that your world class swimming skills really matter, after a mere few minutes of cold water immersion.  Then there is the matter of clothes, appropriate underwear, a dry suit or a survival suit.  

If one can afford a boat, (which will deliver him into trouble), for a few hundred dollars more, he can invest in these essential items (which, with solid training, may keep him out of trouble). 

And, because everyone is now so internet capable, there are at least four different weather forecasts to which a boater has access, essential confirmatory information before leaving home.

There is a lot an individual boater can do to keep tragedy at bay. 

But, if a person’s own stupidity wastes the resources of SAR, places other people at risk and causes his family untold grief, someone should call him out. 

This long weekend, before you venture out, think personal responsibility.  Have you done everything possible to save your own skin as well as those for whom you are responsible?