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
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,
Which brings me on to the main theme of this essay.
For a while I've been reading groups such as rec.boats.building
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
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
Injuries like this can, and should be
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
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.