Antics Afloat

I wrote the following as editor of Boating New Zealand in February 2004 and offer it as a continuing debate around what keeps us safe on the water.

The United States is trying to introduce a new law: to make life preservers, as they are known in those parts, compulsory. There’s quite a furore: rumblings about loss of independence, state control – where will it lead to next?

A similar law last year flowed into New Zealand waters without a ripple and personal floatation devices, PFDs, suitable for all onboard, are now compulsory on all boats. In some situations, they must be worn, for example, if a skipper failed to ensure his or her crew were wearing lifejackets before they tackled a dangerous bar situation, he could be fined.

The skipper must also ensure the correct type of PFD, or lifejacket to use a more popular term, are on board for the passengers, so, for example, children and adults must have access to the appropriately sized lifejacket.

Well, that makes sense, too.

Everyone’s ready to accept a new law until it affects their little world, however, and I do feel miffed about needing lifejackets onboard when I’m rowing people with good swimming ability 100 glassy metres ashore. I also wonder about the long term affects of building a strong dependency on lifejackets.

The law will succeed in its aim to change the mindset of skippers, and already there are far more lifejackets in visible use than two or three years ago. That appears to be a change for the better but the law may unwittingly create a generation of people less wary of water than their abilities may allow.

Kids should learn at a young age, when well-supervised, what happens if they get out of their depth when swimming. That lesson may be: the coloured floats around your torso will keep you afloat until someone comes to get you. Or, it may be: if you move your arms and legs as taught at swimming school, you will get safely back to shore and enjoy the experience.

I am not suggesting the new law intends discouraging people to learn to swim but it could be an unwelcome by-product, just as outboard motors have seen a huge slide in general ability to row a dinghy and digital watches spawned a generation who could not tell the time in the traditional sense. Clock-related references such as “There’s a fishing boat anchored at three o’clock” and nine flashes for a west cardinal mark will lose their significance.

The ability to swim and generally being comfortable around water are big factors in preventing panic, which is a big issue in drowning. A boating parent who fails to provide their child with a lifejacket on boats is considered legally irresponsible; no one comments on a boating parent who fails to teach their child to swim.

Apart from the serious stuff, a lot of the fun to be had in boating is all about confidence, in and on the water.

Photo caption: Nelson artist and sailor Sean Garwood wears a buoyancy vest when solo sailing his tiny classic yacht, Tinker.

Check out my new book, Wild Seas to Greenland - a sailing adventure with ocean racer Ross Field. It's a high rolling ride across the North Atlantic Ocean, a Kiwi DIY feast and a masterclass in high-tech weather routing from one of New Zealand's best-known ocean sailors. Learn more at

85 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All