Lines in the Sand

by Alistair Wasey

Putting Other People's Lives at Risk

Editors Note: This is the inaugural offering of Alistair Wasey's new column. Al is a young man who is knowledgeable beyond his years, and who writes better than most fellows of any age. More importantly, he is eager to hear from you readers about the subjects he writes about, so that he can revisit these subjects with broader insight.

3am is a beautiful time of day. Perhaps it was the sleep that I was blinking from my eyes as I climbed into my car that gave it a rosey tint, but the drive from my house to Northwich had a certain magical aura: the villages, towns and hamlets through which I pass silent as the grave, and as populous. A light mist lies over the fields, as the ghostly presence of a startled owl catches the edge of my headlight beam. 3am is a beautiful time of day.

I think it is perhaps a curious commentary on we oarsmen that we are drawn to the pre-dawn as surely as moths to a candle. Bruce Hector of the Sun Coast Recreational Rowing Club has been known to rise similarly early. Although in his case, he received the attentions of a TV crew. I received only the attentions of pyjama clad college students. It's a tough job but someone has to do it.

The SJD men's boat experience tideway
racing (literally) at the sharp end.

I and the fair students of Sir John Deane's VI Form College (my old college) were off on our annual jaunt down to London for the School's Head of the River Race. This is one of a series of races, and runs on the same course as the Oxbridge Boat Race. In contrast to Oxbridge, the School's Head offers the sight of several hundred crews of 13 to 18 year olds, pushing themselves to the limits of the skill and endurance. The race is keenly contested, rumours on the bank had it that the cox of the Eton School First Eight had a mobile phone with him in the boat, and was receiving reports on the river conditions down the course up to a few minutes before the race.

We mere mortals have no such aspirations, and are perfectly happy to place in the middle order, as my crew did back in 2002. This year's entry did well, in the latter third of the times, despite some rather bad luck, or more accurately, bad steering.

Which brings me on to the main theme of this essay. For a while I've been reading groups such as and the Michalak builders group and picking up on comments about idiotic people putting other people's lives at risk. Every year here in the UK we hear through the major news outlets of one or two fatal incidents involving jetskis.

What really got me thinking about this issue was that both the College crews were involved in relatively serious collisions either during or shortly after their races. One boat had the bow rigger damaged, both crews came back with bruises. Earlier in the week, I picked up a rather nasty-looking injury to my back, rowing in a race with a cox (steersman) who seemed incapable of keeping the boat off the bank.

At work, there are signs everywhere "You do not come to work to get hurt", neither do we go boating to get hurt. So what's going wrong here? The observation that I've drawn from my week is that we're allowing too many people out on the water in craft with too much speed and power, with insufficient experience. A flying eight could be travelling at 20mph over the ground on a strong current, while weighing three quarters of a tonne. A collision at that speed can leave the bowman paralysed. So imagine what happens if someone in their speedboat weighing a couple of tonnes and travelling at 40mph gets it wrong!

The fine entry and beautifully rounded sterns
of these boats provide fast, efficient and most
importantly, low wake transport on the Tideway.

At the heart of this problem is a relatively simple conundrum. We want watersports to be fun and accessible. The last thing that we want to do is stifle them with bureaucracy. And yet, I think we're seeing our waterways being more heavily used by pleasure craft with no great increase in general competence. Clearly, making people sit tests is too draconian with small boats, and what the answer to this is, I'm not sure. Perhaps some kind of registration system, access to cheap education on watercraft or something similar. At the very least I'd like to see a universal code of best practise, a sort of highway code for the water. Perhaps it already exists, if it does, it needs more publicity.

I do feel strongly however, that those in charge of larger, powerful craft should sit some kind of test. Someone with 115Horsepower hanging from their transom capable of pushing their craft to 30mph or more should conform to some minimum standards of education and competence. In truth, I'd like to see this on any craft capable of going over 10mph. I certainly feel that anybody responsible for the safety of a number of people, such as the steersperson of a rowing boat should also have some kind of mandatory education. I personally see something of a crisis in the sport of Rowing at the moment in that too many inexperienced coxes are being allowed out on the water. Even at the highest levels mistakes are being made with serious consequences. Last year, days before the varsity race, Cambridge ran into a Harbour Launch, wrecking 3 oars, and the bowman's wrist, this year the two crews clashed which arguably cost Oxford the race.

Injuries like this can, and should be avoided.

Of course, collision is not the only danger on the water. Changeable weather conditions, unseen currents, wildlife in some parts of the world, but probably the biggest killer is raw inexperience. It sometimes amazes me that I'm still around, given some of the stupid things I've done. I accidentally capsized a kayak in a couple of feet of water back in my early teens and had the shock of my life as I clawed my way out of the canoe and stood up in water barely up to my knees with rocks on the bottom. Canoeing helmets may look silly, but I go nowhere without mine these days. Equally, the day I took a dinghy out in a force five to six and had to run for cover as I realised the severity of the weather was another learning experience I shouldn't have had!

Equally though, I've been out rowing with visibility down at 50 yards or less, and on other days with two feet of chop throwing water all over the boat and the top of the water flying off in spray as gusts nearing force 9 or so tore down the river, and been totally safe. The difference here was that we had safety boats standing by and most importantly, experienced people both in the boat and in safety roles. Obviously, it's daft to suggest that everyone should have safety boat coverage for a paddle on the local pond, but finding someone who knows what they're doing is good for you, will help you learn good watercraft quickly, and will gain you someone to share a few beers with afterwards. At the very least, always try to have someone around you, on the bank or in the water who can help you if you get into difficulty.

I'm not pretending that I have the answers with respect to this issue of safety on the water, but I do feel that it's a debate that we as water users should be having, and that safety should be a primary consideration when putting any craft on the water.

I would love to hear your views on this, feel free to contact me via the email address at the bottom of this article to tell me of any accidents or near misses you may have witnessed and what, if anything, you feel needs to be done.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Be safe.

Alistair Wasey