Mar 182009

There have been a spate of accidents and drownings off yachts of late on the Vaal. In the last year or so a PNYC member, Ron Roseveare, was reportedly knocked overboard from the yacht Royal Flush during a gybe and drowned during a club race in October 2008 [Tragedy in 6-hr race]. Before that, in July 2008 an elderly mariner fell out his dinghy, and ended up clinging to a mooring in the dead of night in winter – a close call rather than a tragedy fortunately [Can you get into you yacht from the water]. Just recently in March 2009, Cedric Wells was lost near Manten Marina [Another MOB]. In the case of both fatalities, it took the SAPS Water Wing several days to recover the bodies. The long recovery times are more than likely a direct result of the murkiness of the water. Anyone who has ever dropped anything over the side will have noticed that nothing is visible as shallow as 1/2m below the surface.

This of course raises the question of safety on board. Unfortunately this is just the kind of thing that will have some stuffy, govermental beaurocrat, who doesn’t know the bow of the boat from the head telling us all what to do.

I often sail single-handed and as a result, going overboard occupies my thoughts every now and again, especially with the latest news. At 4-5 knots with the autohelm set, there’s no way I’ll get back on board. All the safety gear in the world is not going to help me as I, treading water, watch my boat sail into the distant shore. So the questions: Is it unsafe practice to sail alone? Should I sail alone but always wear a lifejacket? Should I not sail at all? The short answer is I don’t know for sure. If I choose not to wear the lifejacket, and I land up in a situation where I need it, it’ll then be too late and guaranteed will wish I had.  All I know for sure is that I want that choice to be mine and I’m happy enough to live with the consequences and not blame anyone else for my choices.

Sailing is supposed to be fun. There are enough rules and regulations ashore. I don’t want to be told to wear a lifejacket at all times. I want to enjoy a glass of red as the sun sets over the anchorage. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I think its vital to understand how these unfortunate souls were lost. Could they swim, alcohol, medical conditions, a severe bump to the head? Or just an unovoidable accident of the “wrong place, wrong time” kind? Unfortunately, it’s not often that the real reasons are apparent from the reporting in the media. I hear the case for always wearing a life-jacket. I also value my freedom of cloice. It’s one of the resons I sail. If forced by legislation to wear one, I would feel dictated do, deprived of my freedom.

I think we all need to learn from these incidents and ensure that safety aboard is a priority. We all need to be responsible, for our own lives and those of our crew. Do the safety drills. If someone cannot swim or conditions are rough, enforce the wearing of lifejackets. Don’t fall overboard at all costs! Make sure the vessel has the appropriate safety gear for all on board. But, let’s keep the responsibility for taking our own decisions about how much safety is appropriate in any given circumstance.