Skippers – both recreational and commercial, have always been responsible for the safety of their vessels and the people on board in the eyes of the law, but what exactly does this mean in practice?
The first thing to note is that in New Zealand there is no requirement to have any kind of license to operate a boat. Anyone can go out and buy a boat and head out in to the sea, lake or up a river. The onus is on them to know all the rules, but sadly many people don’t.
We often see people zooming around at high speeds through the moored yachts, or launching their boats full of kids and picnics, when the marine forecast predicts a storm at any time, or sailing straight over the top of a reef clearly marked by a lighthouse with the rocks lying less than a metre below the surface. These people aren’t deliberately being stupid, they are blissfully unaware of the speed laws, the marine forecast and charted hazards. They have no idea that what they are doing is endangering themselves, their boat, other boats and their passengers and that if they do have an accident they could also be prosecuted, fined and even jailed.
New Zealand has recently updated our Health and Safety laws. These laws mainly relate to businesses, and to be honest we have had a pretty shocking history with people being injured or killed in the workplace. These laws also apply to yacht clubs who have a duty of care for their paid staff and volunteers, and also their sailors out on the water.
Lets take a look at a few situations we have been in. This time last year when I was working at the yacht club we called off a race because the forecast was for a big storm to come through. More details here… It was an absolutely stunning day, but at 3pm the storm did come through, going from no wind to over 40kts in just a couple of minutes. Generally speaking with yacht racing, the onus is on the skipper to make the call whether they race or not, and this takes some of the responsibility back off the club and race officer and hands it back to the skipper. However the club still needs to send their boats out to lay the marks, these boats are manned by volunteers who the club has a duty of care for.
Hey guys! Its too windy!
OK, so what say the club did run the race that day? and the skippers of the yachts did see the forecast and still decided to go sailing, and the fleet got nailed in the storm, in the chaos that ensued, you hit another boat and seriously injure both one of your crew and one of the other crew in the process trying to fend the boats off one another… what happens now?
According to the Maritime NZ website – they make decisions to prosecute after considering the facts of each case, including the extent of harm and the importance of raising awareness about operating boats safely.
There might be some serious questions asked in that scenario, such as the decision to go sailing despite the forecast, whether the skipper and crew had been consuming alcohol, whether the skipper was maintaining a proper look out when the collision occurred, whether the crew were wearing lifejackets in the stormy conditions, and if they had been trained properly in the operation of the boat in heavy weather, whether they had been warned of the hazards on board the boat, and if the boat had the correct safety gear including a properly equipped first aid kit to deal with the injuries of the crew.
A couple of years ago we watched the bowman fall off the yacht in front of us, in winter, fully clothed in wet weather gear and boots, but with no lifejacket on. His boat had the spinnaker up, so they couldn’t easily turn around straight away and pick him up. We sailed straight for him as fast as we could and threw him our life ring, the trailer yacht behind us picked him up. He was quite panicked by the time we got to him. It was a calm day, he simply overbalanced and fell over the side.
Even without the bad weather, accidents still happen. And when you are on a boat, be it in a harbour or miles out in the Ocean, you can’t simply call for help and expect it to be there in a flash. You have got to be prepared! No one wants to go out sailing and injure their crew, damage their boat, look like an idiot or get prosecuted in the process. So as a skipper – what should you do!?
- Learn the rules! Who gives way to whom, speed limits, how to read a chart etc. The Coastguard Day Skipper course is a great place to start, and they have more in depth courses for people wanting to go right through to Ocean Yachtmaster. And at least you will know that you aren’t breaking any of the boating etiquette rules as well.
- Check the marine forecast, and only go out if you and your crew can handle the conditions. Everyone’s boats are different, and just because the race is still on or someone else is still heading out, doesn’t mean that you should…
- Have all the relevant safety gear on board. This should at the very least include a proper marine first aid kit, fire fighting equipment, life jackets, and a couple of different methods of communication. A full list of the Yachting NZ recommended safety equipment can be found here.
- Identify the hazards on your boat. This could include the boom hitting people’s heads, rope burns, falling overboard etc. Attempt to eliminate or minimise these risks and do a safety briefing for all new crew members before heading out. Train them how to use the equipment on board and the location of all the safety gear.
When we head offshore we have discussions about what we would do in the event of a serious situation, such as a fire, losing the mast, hitting something, and sailing in stormy conditions. I think if you have at least got a plan in place for those situations, then you can save valuable time. Commercial vessels have Standard Operating Procedures in place for that very reason.
Heading out sailing should be a fun activity. Accidents and issues will almost inevitably arise, but if your boat is equipped with the required safety gear, your crew know what to do and you as skipper have done all you can to can to minimise the risks and you can all work together as a team to resolve the issue… then you should be able to fully exercise Rule #3 of Sailing – “When shit happens – refer to rule #1 – look good”