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How Safe Are We on the Water?

The other side of adventure is always danger

Water has drawn our species back ever since we left its embrace.
    In Saharan cave drawings, ancestral swimmers frolic in weightlessness. On beaches and in pools, 21st century kids submerge with the same exhilaration.
    Relics of boats dug out of logs or woven from reeds date back at least as far as those cave drawings, 7,000 and more years. On boats, we’ve extended our reach, surpassed our known horizons, sought and lost fortune, advanced our civilization. Imagine the stakes when all that was known was what we ourselves knew — and all that lay ahead was mystery.
    The adventure has remained irresistible. But the other side of thrill is danger.
    We are reminded of the danger at the 60th anniversary of the sinking of the Levin J. Marvel and taking 14 lives. The Bay excursion boat sank off my community, Fairhaven. Neighbors set out in small boats to save lives and, as we see in our neighborhood photo archive, recover bodies.
    Tragedy of that sort never goes out of date. Natural Resources Police and Coast Guard report boating accidents, sinkings, fires and drownings almost every week of summer.
    Swimmers, too, fall victim to the waters that drew them in. In the last weeks, three swimmers drowned in two incidents off Cove Point in Lusby, a friendly seeming beach where a standing lighthouse suggests dangers but not so close at hand.
    All these lives are lost in somebody’s neighborhood, in adventures gone awry.
    In this week’s paper, Bob Melamud makes a cautionary tale of the Levin J. Marvel. “In spite of all our technical progress, we still rely on the skills, experience and judgment of the person in charge to keep us safe,” he writes. Below my letter, the Coast Guard of the Baltimore Sector explains their work in inspecting commercial boats like the Marvel to “keep the boating public safe.”
    As swimmers and boaters on our own, however, we are the person in charge, and by and large have only our own skills, experience and judgment to rely on.
    How good are yours?
    Only if you’re younger than 43 are you required to pass a structured safe boating course. Otherwise, the safe operation of your boat is up to you. The Coast Guard Auxiliary will inspect your pleasure boat to ensure it meets safety standards, but that inspection is purely voluntary. The Coast Guard may enforce safety by stopping you for a chance inspection, but that’s a relative rarity. Basically, when you’re on the water, you’re free to do all the harm you can’t avoid.
    Swimming safety is slippier still. Except for the occasional on-shore sign, what tells you to refuse the invitation of the water?
    Safety on the water is a last frontier of personal responsibility. Even so, we do not have ultimate responsibility. For as much as we love the water, it obeys only its own laws.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com