Friday, January 4, 2008

On boaters...

There are literally millions of people in Canada nowadays, that own pleasure craft. It seems to be one of those activities like motorcycling, that is going through an enormous popularity phase. Recent regulations enacted in 1999, call for boaters to show a certain degree of 'proof of competency'. This is something which is not only long overdue, it just makes sense.

The Canada Shipping Act is the federal body of law which provides the rules and regulations that govern the conduct of all recreational boaters (as well as commercial vessels...), in any body of water here in Canada. These are laws that boaters are bound to abide by. These rules and regulations have been in place for a very long time now (decades before 1999), so we're not talking about anything new here. With this established, there are perhaps only a small fraction of boaters out there who are actually aware of them. Even (especially...) boaters who will rant that they've been boating for the last however many years, are generally clueless when it comes to these rules and regulations. Proof positive that you can do something for over 30 years and still not know a goddamn thing about it. These idiots are especially dangerous, because they are convinced that they actually have abilities. They are also the ones who often begin their tirade with: "Well, I've been boating for years and this is the first I've ever heard of these rules...". This is perhaps the main reason for the recent push in educating boaters and requiring them to have at least a basic introduction to these laws. It's hard to know what's goin' on around you, when you live with your head up your ass...

The law requires all boaters to be able to show proof of competency by the 15 September 2009 at the very latest. If you were born anytime after 1983 or if you pilot a boat less than 4 meters (13.3 feet) in length, you should already have your proof of competency. You will be fined if you are not able to produce it. It's that simple.

"Ha...ha... There's no Coast Guard on the lake where I boat! Whose gonna enforce your federal laws?" The answer to that is as simple as you are, Jethro... For as much as these laws are federal in nature, they are of course enforcable by any law enforcement agency in Canada. So municipal, provincial or federal police agencies, game wardens, a deputized member of a cottage association... anyone!

I once received a call from a woman in Montreal. She was a secretary who was phoning on behalf of her boss. Her boss was in the middle of the St.Lawrence Seaway, in a small boat with a dead motor and was being swept along out to sea by a 12 knot current. His boat was not equipped with a marine VHF radio and he was not equipped with any discernable intelligence. He was frantically calling his secretary on his cell phone, asking her to get help to him.
Being the consummate professional that I am, I resisted the urge to bray laughter into her end of the phone.

There are so many things wrong with that scenario, it's hard to know where to begin. There is a growing trend for people to believe that their trusty cell phone (the same one that cuts out every now and then and drops calls on you...) is all they require to save them from imminent danger. The idiocy of such a thought process may not be immediately evident to the unschooled, but I will try to explain this in a manner that will alleviate any possible confusion.

A cell phone is NOT recommended by ANYONE of any consequence, as a means of communication for a person who happens to be onboard a boat. It is most definitely not recommended as the communications device for saving your life!! Yes, I know... there are some cell phone service providers who offer a *16 option, that will automatically bounce your call to your regional Coast Guard MCTS Centre. Personally? I think it's a very bad idea. It encourages faulty thinking and gives you the impression you might actually be able to contact someone. It isn't something that was dreamed up by the Canadian Coast Guard and I doubt very, very much that they endorse it. A marine VHF radio is THE primary means of communicating on the water. Anyone who would presume to know the least little bit about boating, would know this one salient fact. A marine VHF radio is your only link to other boaters around you (who are normally the very first ones to respond to any distress call...), as well as to the Coast Guard and/or Search and Rescue authorities.

If you call someone on a cell phone, nobody else can hear you. Nobody can trace and pinpoint your position. (Well...unless you're a concern to our agencies concerned with National Security...). When you broadcast on a marine VHF radio (Ch.16 - International Distress and Calling), everyone can hear you. Most boaters will keep a listening watch on that channel and God knows the Coast Guard monitors it 24/7 to ensure a rapid response to any distress situation. A VHF transmission can be detected and traced by HFDF stations, who by employing a crossfix procedure, can establish your position for the deployment of SAR assets. Did you know that under international laws, if you intercept a distress call on your VHF radio, you are obliged by law to render assistance? So long as you are not endangering your vessel or your own life, you are compelled to render assistance. It is the law!

A marine VHF radio is NOT a CB of Ham radio. You don't simply flash one up and start jabbering nonsense. There is a very specific voice procedure that is used for communicating on it. There is an entirely new language to learn, if you ever hope to be understood by competent boaters or people who could potentially save your life one day. And here's another thing to chew on: how would you report your location? Would you even know where you were? Do you know how to take a navigational fix to establish your position? Does your boat have any navigational gear at all, such as a GPS unit? If not, why not? If you don't know where in the Hell you are, how can you expect to tell someone else where to find you? "I'm in the middle of a big body of water...", is not a transmission that would be of any help to a would-be rescuer. It's nice to be able to talk to folks, but if you have absolutely nothing useful to tell them other than the fact that your boat is taking on water and you're going down, what's the point? Anyone who wants to operate a marine VHF radio, whether it is a fixed or portable model, must have a Restricted Operator's Certificate (Maritime). The training course, the exam and the certificate are issued in Canada solely by the Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons. For as much as they are a private entity, they are the ones who have been tapped by Industry Canada to provide this service and issue the certificates on behalf of them.

But in the end, it all boils down to what value you put on your life. Or those of your passengers. Do remember that you are legally responsible for the lives of anyone you take onboard your vessel. Remember that motor you installed on your boat, that was 50hp over the recommended rating for your vessel (as per your capacity plate)??? No, there's no law that says you can't do that, but I'll wager if you check with your insurance company, they will advise you that your policy is no longer valid. There's no way they're gonna insure your ass when you transgress the safe operating limits established for your type of boat. What's that...? What if something drastic involving injury or loss of life should happen as a result of your unlawful 'modification'? Well, let's put it this way. With no insurance to protect you, you stand a better than average chance of handing all your future paychecks over to someone else's lawyer. When boating, very much like motorcycling, when things go bad they normally do so very quickly. There is not much time to respond, even if you are competent on the water, which far too many boaters are NOT. Again...common sense would prevent so many tragedies, but there seems to be a shortage of such nowadays.

A gentleman once called me asking if the Coast Guard gave courses teaching how to put a lifejacket on, once in the water. Without hesitation, I replied: "Absolutely not, Sir...". "Well, why on earth not?", he asked. I replied: "The Coast Guard believes that if you are in a boat, you should already have your lifejacket ON! Hence the saying: It won't work if you don't wear it!". What this person wanted was akin to asking a firearms instructor for a booklet on how to dig out a bullet from the human body. The aim is to not shoot yourself in the first place, asshole! That has always been their position and I don't think it likely to change anytime soon.

Many boaters will adopt an attitude when they call our service, as though their feelings are hurt or they're insulted that the 'gubmint' thinks they don't know as much as they should, when it comes to boating safety. Well kids, you're just going to have to accept the truth that you don't. Get over yourselves... The very fact that the Feds are compelled to run ads to get people to wear something as basic as a lifejacket or a PFD, speaks volumes for many boaters' lack of self-preservation skills.

Truly, there is no end to the means by which we can choose to hasten our departure from this world. ;)

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