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Monday, November 21, 2005

We're Not Stupid

The older I get, the more I have to remind myself to take my time, think things through and make sure I have all my ducks lined up before embarking on a given project.

A few weeks ago I had to go out to my boat in a 50 knot gale. I can look back on that experience and say I did everything right. I had a plan laid out in my head, one I'd taken the time to examine carefully for holes and miscues, followed the plan one step at a time, and managed to come home with nary a scratch. Can't say that happens all the time.

On a fishing trip many years ago I accidentally gaffed myself in the neck. We were 40 miles offshore, and the guys who had chartered the boat had the combined maritime experience of a desert vole. I was lucky. I didn't decapitate myself. Not only would it have been virtually impossible for me to get back to shore and safety, my charter party would have been stranded out there with a captain who looked like the last victim of a grade-b slasher movie.

This is what happened:

I used to steam out to the grounds with the hydraulic pump for the hauler disconnected from the engine. When I'd get to the spot, I'd anchor up, get everyone fishing, then go back and set the belts on the pump. To do this, I'd typically lean into the engine room and bear down on the pump with the butt of the fish gaff in one hand and a 9/16" wrench in the other. This particular day it was kind of rough and the boat was bobbing around like a cork in a wash tub. The guys were catching doubles and screaming for me to help tend the fish. Seawater was sloshing through the scuppers in fire hose fashion. And it was cold and raw. Fairly normal fishing day, actually.

I don't know what it was exactly. Maybe my fingers were numb from the cold, or maybe someone on deck hollered something noteworthy. Add the rolling and the pitching. Whatever, my hand slipped, and the business end of the gaff came down into my neck. I stood up in about half a second and took stock of the feeling. Luke warm. Wet. Stinging pain.

There was a little mirror in the cabin and I went down to check the damage. Fortunately, the pointed end of the gaff just skidded from the back of my neck all the way around to the front, in the shape of a half moon, not too deep. I would live to fish another day.

I sprayed myself with antibiotic, went back on deck, and took a pair of doubles (two nice cod) off of Ed's line. He glanced at me, then looked at me again, then looked a third time close at my neck: "What the hell you do, Bob, try to hang yourself?"

From that day on I decided to take things a lot slower. I didn't want to become a statistic, or the subject of an editorial like this one. Because people die in unnecessary ways, and other people talk about them.

A few years ago, mid-winter, a guy here got drunk and decided to row a canoe out to his dragger in the harbor. Dumb move. Slipped getting out of the canoe and fell in the water. Done deal.

Another guy, a recreational boater, was working on his ketch by himself. He leaned into the engine room from the deck and got stuck upside down. That's the way they found him.

A few years ago, the former captain of a mini-cruise ship was decommissioning the vessel after the company that owned it went bankrupt. He was in the engine room and accidentally set off the fire suppression system. He tried to escape and got caught in one of the emergency doors as it shut automatically. He was cut in half.

I could go on and on.

Not too long ago, a local fisherman, well, known and well liked, was out dragging with his son and his son's friend. For whatever reason, the vessel started to sink. (Very often you don't realize you're sinking until it's too late.)

The boys went on deck while the father hurried into the forward cabin to get the survival suits. It was then the vessel capsized. Both boys got off and were eventually rescued. The father got caught inside and went down with the boat.

I can't tell you how often I go on someone's boat and find the survival suits tucked in a locker in the forward cabin. Survival suits should be stored as close to deck as possible, preferably right next to the main door(s). Not saying this is what happened above. Without facts, I would never presume something happened a certain way on somebody else's boat. I'll leave that to amateurs like Sebastion Junger, who can speculate on the unknown and in so doing end up richer and more famous. (A little drama and a little prose go a long way toward financial security.)

Thing is, in two of the examples above -- the captain decommissioning his vessel and the fisherman whose boat capsized -- we're talking about experienced hands. Careful, cautious seafarers. People who take the time to check and recheck.

Last night, when I went to the boat, I wore my life vest. I always wear my life vest now. Never used to. I wear it out and back in the skiff, take it off when I get to the big boat. That's standard procedure.

Nevertheless, last night I still did something stupid. After I finished working on the big boat, I threw the vest in the skiff, instead of donning it before climbing over the rail. If I had slipped and fallen in, 50/50 I would have heard the fat lady sing.

I once mentioned to someone that a mutual friend had made a foolish mistake. The guy I was talking to remarked: "Is there any other kind."

And yet, given the above, I have to add the following: Just because I'm not perfect and slip up once in awhile, doesn't mean I want the government to assume I'm stupid and legislate accordingly. Neither do I want big business thinking for me.

We have cars that automatically lock the doors when you engage the transmission. We have seat belt alarms and all sorts of other safety oriented impositions on our lives. Yes, we make mistakes, but we're not stupid.

When you hear about people drowning, and you read in the paper or hear in the news the person or persons didn't have on their life jacket(s), the implication is this is the reason they drowned. We're led to believe they were stupid and careless.

No matter what you hear in the media, you can't wear the vest all the time. You just can't. There's work do be done in cramped places. There are vessel compartments -- like the main ballroom on a cruise ship -- where you'd look like an idiot wearing one. Trust me, there are times you should not or need not wear a life jacket. People who don't know about these things would like you to believe otherwise.

Let's agree smart people make mistakes. And let's agree it helps to remind people of the pitfalls and risks. But please, let's not try to legislate or manufacture stupidity avoidance.


Copyright © Bob G. Bernstein (seabgb) All Rights Reserved!

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