• Life Jackets Are Needed

    As we sit on our deck in the spring sunshine at Ohiwa and enjoy the warmer temperatures, we notice each day another unmistakable sign that spring is upon us. There is a large and growing number of small boats out in the bay – some, presumably, fishing, others just “messing about in boats”.

    Sadly, it reminds us that we will no doubt soon hear another rash of stories about lives lost at sea – many of those casualties involving those who should have, but weren’t, wearing life jackets.

    The constant urgings that people going to sea in small boats should wear life jackets seem to make little impression on those macho guys who think that it is “sissy” to take such precautions or on those who complain about the “nanny state” and say that it should be left to individual choice.

    The debate, such as it is, is reminiscent of the arguments when the law requiring seat belts was introduced. The same tired old objections were trotted out then – we should be allowed to make our own decisions and “a seat belt won’t help, but will make it more difficult to escape from a burning car”.

    But, with the carnage on our roads refusing to reduce and the undeniable evidence that the injuries suffered by those not wearing seat belts are greater than they need be, that debate seems now pretty much resolved.

    But was there ever any substance in the argument that the decision on whether or not to wear seat belts (or life jackets) should be left to individual choice? Is it really the case that it is no one else’s business and that there is no wider interest in trying to bring down the drowning toll?

    The first point to make is that the owner or skipper of the boat is usually not the only one involved. There will almost always be others on board and they will usually do what the skipper tells them or at least follow his example. If they are children, or inexperienced abut being at sea, the skipper has a special responsibility to them and their families to set the right example.

    And that is to say nothing of those, professionals or volunteers, who might be required to risk their own lives to save those whose lives are threatened because they couldn’t be bothered to look after themselves.

    But the consequences of setting the wrong example, with the result that lives are unnecessarily lost, go wider than that. Every life lost at sea will impact on others and will have consequences that society as a whole will often have to deal with. As the poet John Donne famously said, “No man is an island unto himself”. A family member who drowns will leave behind not just a sense of loss and grief for the bereaved family but perhaps, as well, dependants who will need to be supported – and such burdens will often become the responsibility of the wider society.

    We all have an interest, in other words, in trying to save lives through such small, practical (and surely not difficult) measures as wearing seat belts or installing smoke alarms or getting a Warrant of Fitness for our cars or, let us be clear, wearing life jackets. There is nothing very macho about not using your common sense and putting the lives of others unnecessarily at risk.

    From our vantage point above the great Pacific Ocean as it rolls in inexorably and on to our beach, we have on memorable and tragic occasions watched as boats have got into trouble and have foundered on the rocks further along the coast, with – inevitably – some loss of life. We have no wish to bear witness to similar tragedies in future, especially if they turn out to have been avoidable if only the simplest of precautions had been taken.

    Bryan Gould
    12 September 2018