TAKING A BEARING
MEL BARTLETT A risk worth taking?
‘At 11.35 on May 15 2016, the passenger vessel Surprise suffered hull damage and started flooding when it grounded at Western Rocks, Isles of Scilly; all 48 passengers were safely evacuated to shore. The flooding was contained by the vessel’s own bilge pumps and it returned to harbour under its own power.’
And at 00.01 on June 29 2017, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch published its report into the incident. It runs to 42 pages, plus 44 pages of annexes.
It identified three safety issues: that a passage plan had not been prepared; that safety management systems did not include sufficient guidance on navigation or emergency procedures; and that the exams for local boatmen’s licences ‘lacked rigour.’
Not for the first time, it seems that the MAIB inspectors and the boatmen scratching a living at sea are living on different planets.
Surprise was a 14m open boat, owned and operated by a young man who had been working on boats just like her for 12 of his 28 years, and whose passengers had paid for a trip that would take them close to the wildlife for which the islands are famous. They wanted photos of cuddly, big-eyed pups, not distant grey blobs. And in order to get them, Surprise had to venture into the intertidal areas, where ships don’t go, and depth information barely exists.
Passage planning won’t help, unless every rock is charted (this one wasn’t), and the seals tell the boatmen where they will be sunning themselves in advance.
Nor will checklists. The MAIB inspector himself commented that Surprise’s skipper and the other boatmen who came to his rescue handled the situation well; but they did it by using seamanship and initiative, not by hunting through a library of Standard Operating Procedures for every eventuality!
In fairness to the MAIB, its recommendations are quite gently worded, but I wonder whether someone, somewhere, needs to ask whether hitting a rock is always an unacceptable risk.
The rock itself is obviously best avoided, but can we really say the same about the risk? Or are some risks worth taking? We take risks every time we cross a road and people do all sorts of far more dangerous things because it gives them pleasure. Can we really say that seal watching is really so dangerous that it shouldn’t be offered to ordinary tourists?
Whatever your thoughts on that, maybe Surprise’s surprise is best seen as a simple reminder that no chart can be relied on to show every single hazard! Let’s be careful out there!
Even something as tame as photographing seals involves a degree of risk