Waterproof wireless telegraphy

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about wireless telegraphy, concluding that:

At present, the rational decision for a boat-owner is to buy a cheap VHF without bothering to get either a certificate for the operator or a licence for the vessel. This is the rational decision because the official channels for getting certificates and licences are slow, expensive and cumbersome. It may therefore be — who knows? — that the populace has already decided to ignore the regulations.

For leisure boating within some sensible distance of the shore, I suggest that the current regulations be either drastically simplified or, perhaps better, scrapped altogether. That might mean giving the International Telecommunication Union a kick up the transom, but the present system is counterproductive: it seems to limit the use of handheld VHFs in cases where they could be very useful, if only to allow search and rescue volunteers to stand down earlier.

Two reports published today by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board have caused me to reconsider that conclusion.

In the Brownstown Head case [Report no MCIB/229; no 11 of 2013] [PDF], two occupants of a 16′ punt were thrown into the water when the boat capsized. They had a handheld VHF in the boat, but it sank when the boat capsized; one occupant put his mobile phone in his mouth to keep it above the water but it was knocked out. As a result, they were unable to summon assisstance. They eventually tried to swim to the shore, but only one made it; the other was drowned.

In the MacDara’s Island Currach case [Report no MCIB/215; no 10 of 2013] [PDF], a fisherman seems to have fallen overboard from a 6.15m open boat, in which he was alone. It was equipped with flares and a VHF in a watertight container, but as the report says:

5.6. There are unique problems with fishing operations from small open boats by lone fishermen. Once they become separated from their vessel their means of communicating their distress are on board their boat and not accessible to them.

In neither of these cases was the possession of a handheld VHF of any use. The VHF sets would have had to be (a) waterproof and (b) securely attached to the boaters’ lifejackets. The report on the MacDara’s Island Currach case recommends:

6.5. That the “Code of Practice for Fishing Vessels under 15 LOA” section 9.5 Radio Equipment should be amended by the addition of a requirement for undecked vessels where there is a lone occupant that an appropriate beacon should be of the type worn on the person.

In fact, the same recommendation could be applied to cases like Brownstown Head, where there were two people in the boat. That is broadly in line with the actions announced by two ministers on 8 July; note Simon Coveney also said:

I am also establishing a new high level working group on safety in the fishing industry, to look at all aspects of safety on fishing vessels and to report to Minister Varadkar and myself with recommendations before the end of the year. The new working group will be chaired by Mr John Leech current CEO of Irish Water Safety. Because a common thread of comment in recent times has been the need to pay particular attention on issues surrounding the number of small inshore boats that get into difficulty, I have charged the group with focussing to a large degree on this aspect.

So the wider use of handheld VHFs won’t solve every problem. I still think, though, that such wider use should be encouraged by the removal of unnecessary barriers.

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