An employee from the P&O ferry "Pride of Bilbao" has been arrested by detectives investigating the death of three sailors.
The 61-year-old man from Dover was arrested by police on Wednesday, on suspicion of causing manslaughter through gross negligence. The bodies of James Meaby, Jason Downer and Rupert Saunders were found floating in the English Channel last month after their yacht 'Ouzo' had left Bembridge harbour, Isle of Wight, on Sunday August 20th. The yacht has not been found, but it is believed that she was run down by a large ship.
This may be an unpopular view, but The GOS doesn't think this should be happening.
It is well-known among experienced sailors that the greatest danger in small-boat sailing is not storms, ship-wreck, piracy or collision with whales, but being run down. Literally hundreds of yachts and small fishing-boats have been sunk or damaged, usually in the dark, by larger vessels. A five-minute trawl through Google revealed the Bristol Channel pilot boat "Angally" in 1823, the Swedish brig Baldor and the cutter "Black Swan" in 1846, the frightful loss of life when the steamers "Erin" and "Pacha" collided in 1851, the steamer "Vesta", the sailing vessel "Oceanus" and the steamer "Melbourne" in 1854, the "Pelican" in 1855, and the "SS Rowan" in 1921. Fishing boats are particularly vulnerable e.g. the "Gaul" in 1974 and the "Bugaled Breizh" in 2004 which are both thought to have been hit by submarines. Modern navigational aids such as radar must help, of course, but they aren't a complete solution as shown by the 2004 collision between "Scot Explorer" and the fishing boat "Dorthe Dalso" and the 2005 sinking of the Peterhead trawler "Harvester".
The sea is nothing like a motorway (it's constantly moving up and down and sideways, for a start). Ships are not lorries - they have no brakes and their road-holding is precarious to say the least. Yachts aren't cars, either - they also have no brakes, and they spend most of their time going sideways.
Large merchant ships have restricted forward vision because of their height, they can take miles to stop or turn, and their deep hulls limit their room for manoeuvre. Small boats and yachts often don't show up on radar at all because they're made of wood or fibreglass, and because they are low in the water their lights are not visible very far. Even in fine weather, visibility at sea is a chancy affair with haze, fog and sun-dazzle all common occurrences. If you'd like to read an expert's view of the problem, go here.
Where the GOS does his sailing, the river is home to hundreds of small vessels but is also used by about a dozen large cargo vessels a day. The ships have to keep to a narrow, winding dredged channel or they run aground. Although they go very slowly, if they stop they lose steerage-way and may drift onto the mud. The small boats can't always stay out of the dredged channel because at some states of the tide there isn't enough water, and anyway sailing boats have to criss-cross the channel in order to make headway against the wind.
Surprisingly this all works very well. The small boat skippers know that the onus is on them to get out of the way, because the ships can't do anything but go slowly ahead. The GOS isn't aware of any accident during the years he's been sailing there. But nothing is certain, of course - suppose a yacht's rigging breaks and the mast comes down? Or an outboard motor fails at just the wrong time? Or the wind drops off at just the wrong moment? It could easily happen. And it needn't be too serious, either - the ship's going slowly and yachts are light: if they're lucky they'll just bounce off.
But everything changes if the master or the pilot of the ship is likely to be arrested by the police in the event of a collision. And the only practical solution that will satisfy the Health and Safety lobby is to ban small boats from the deep channel - in fact, to ban small boats from any area of water likely to be used by shipping. Thus will end centuries of the last great freedom we have, the freedom of the seas.
And why? For revenge, that's why.
We have become a spiteful, revenge-seeking society. Whenever anything goes wrong, our immediate reaction is to seek a culprit and punish him. Train driver is dazzled by sunlight and passes a red signal? Don't just sack him - prosecute him and do your best to bang him up. And if anyone gets hurt, sue the arse off him. Elderly driver dithers and makes a mistake at a junction? Throw the entire weight of the law at his head. Walker trips over an uneven paving-slab? Instant law-suit against the local authority. Disobedient child hurts himself at school? Prosecute the teachers. There's even talk now of civil law-suits against schools that are unsuccessful in preventing their pupils from drinking, smoking or getting fat.
If we were a mature, confident and well-balanced society we would be able to accept that, as some young people of my acquaintance used to say, "shit happens". Accidents occur. People make mistakes. Can each and every one of us seriously claim never to have made a mistake? Of course not.
Unfortunately, though, we aren't mature, confident and well-balanced. We don't have the courage to admit that our lives and our health are, if not in constant danger, at least a little vulnerable, and that fate can strike an unlucky blow at any minute.
It's just such a shame that fate should have chosen three happy, adventurous men like Meaby, Downer and Saunders. I'm sure we can all think of a few more deserving candidates. And I'm willing to bet that if the three were still here to express an opinion, they'd call for an end to the witch-hunt. Like all sailors, they knew the risks. And they'd be appalled that seamen who have a long tradition of bravery, self-sacrifice and helping anyone in distress, are now being judged by desk-bound landlubbers.
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