December 22, 2009

Preserving our freedom

FOLLOWING THE DEATHS of three mountaineers on Mt. Hood, Oregon, there has been a renewed call for all climbers to carry locator beacons. The logic behind this move is unassailable: a locator beacon would guide rescuers precisely to the climbers in trouble. That would mean a great reduction in the expense of helicopters and other search-and-rescue equipment. It would also greatly reduce the risk to life and limb of search parties and rescuers.

So far, the expense of rescuing people who get themselves into trouble on mountains has been borne by the taxpayers. But there are those who argue, with good reason, that climbers who are rescued should pay for the costs involved. Perhaps they should have to take out liability insurance before they are allowed to climb.

I mention all this because exactly the same principle applies to those who sail small boats for pleasure. Sooner or later there will be a public outcry about the expense of rescuing foolish, unprepared sailors who get themselves into trouble on the water. Already, many states are requiring new sailors to attend a course about safety and seamanship. But that is nothing compared with some of the restrictions facing yachtsmen in other countries, where they are required to pass exams, gain experience, and have their boats inspected for seaworthiness before they can leave harbor.

It is all too easy, these days, to push the button on an Epirb, an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, and send an SOS to your nearest Coast Guard center by satellite. The security of knowing they can be rescued from the middle of the ocean may actually encourage people to set off before they are ready, or before they have acquired the experience and equipment they need. And even more encouraging is the knowledge that rescue will cost them nothing.

I agree with the famous British circumnavigator Eric Hiscock, who said that people who sail for pleasure shouldn’t expect to be rescued when they get into trouble. They shouldn’t expect other people to risk their lives and spend their money because of their lack of preparation or foolishness.

If you are a professional seaman or fisherman, then certainly you are entitled to make use of whatever rescue services are available, but amateurs wanting to cross oceans or test themselves in bad weather along our coasts should understand that they do so at their own risk.

Like Hiscock, I have crossed oceans with no way of calling for help, apart from a short-range VHF radio. Some cruisers, over-imbued with the notion of entitlement, have called me foolish for doing so, particularly when modern electronics have made communication so quick and positive, but I stand by the principle.

There is a freedom at stake here. We pride ourselves on our freedoms in this country. But the freedom to sail where you like, how you like, could easily be eroded by the public’s indignation about the expense a selfish hobby incurs.

Today’s Thought
We have confused the free with the free and easy.
— Adlai E. Stevenson, Putting First Things First

New twist on an old gag:
“Who was that lady I saw you outwit last night?”


Oded Kishony said...

I rather like the idea of required tests and boat inspections. After all we require it of car owners, why is a boat so different?

I've taken coast guard auxiliary courses and frankly I find them wanting.

How about a blog about partnership owners of boats? (or did I miss that one?)

My wife and I partnered on an O'day23 pocket cruiser with a retired couple. It was perfect, we had the boat any weekend and they had it all the rest of the time. It helped that we were all good friends and all sailed together occasionally too.

Oded Kishony

John Vigor said...

Oded, I am not a fan of sailing partnerships. You were very lucky to find a perfect partnership, but I get too attached to my boats. I love them dearly. I would no sooner share my boat than I would share my wife. Not that I could, because she wouldn't, but you know what I mean.

John V.