Tragedy afloat

By Jerry Fraser, WorkBoat publisher

In the 1990s, when I was at the Boston Globe, I occasionally filled in for the assistant foreign editor. On the eve of my first gig on the foreign desk, I nervously asked the national editor, whom I’d worked with before, what I needed to know. He said, “Stay off trains in India, buses in South America, and ferries in the Philippines,” and went back to looking at Monica Lewinsky stories on the newswire.

As is often this case, this quip was based on more than a grain of truth. More than that, it points out that geography and custom can impose or limit risks on travelers In the United States, our regulators take safety very seriously. The flip side of this is that as travelers, we take safety on public conveyances for granted.
The burgeoning phenomenon of unlicensed boats for hire trades on this faith, absent the rigorous standards licensed operators and their vessels must comply with. My fear is that it will test this faith.

Boats are wondrous things. They will forgive considerable abuse, but they will sink in short order once they have made up their mind to do so.
Safety regulations are no guarantee, but they reduce risk and militate against calamity brought on by incompetence. We can have confidence in inspected vessels operated by licensed captains because they are unlikely to sink for no good reason and because their captains have sea time and demonstrated knowledge in their resume.

The Coast Guard is stepping up its enforcement efforts around unlicensed operations, and despite my default setting of “skeptical” when it comes to regulations, it is right to do so.

With no more than a cell phone app and dubious assurances of their qualifications, boat owners can hold themselves out to an unwitting public as charter fishermen, excursion operators, or taxi services.

It’s one thing to ford some cinematic creek in the middle of nowhere on a raft hauled by a donkey with a rope and pay the operator a dollar, drunk or sober. It’s another to get on an open boat to go fishing in the ocean with someone who for all you know was training camels for a living this time last year, or to find out you’re one of 70 passengers booked on a 30-foot pontoon boat hauling tourists on a busy river.

Jokes about overloaded ferries halfway around the world may seem insensitive. The truth is that for most of us they don’t strike close to home. But the stage for tragedy afloat is set anywhere safety is not embedded in the culture and operation of a vessel.

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