Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Freedom of the Seas

In the days of old, the sea was an untamed frontier. Sailors were a breed apart, a strange sort who fit in poorly ashore, but afloat faced perils and privations that would sink even the stoutest landlubbers. Nations exercised no effective sovereignty beyond the furthest range of shore-based cannons.

Offshore, chaos was more to be expected than law and order; the next ship to appear over the horizon might be crammed with enemy warriors or pirates.

Strange coastlines were no better, rimmed with unmarked hazards, lacking in navigation markers, and without lifesaving services to come to the rescue of shipwrecked mariners. Instead of aid, mariners in peril along the shore faced wreckers who would lure ships to their graves, and looters ready to strip and murder weakened survivors.

Only gradually did the world's navies and nations combine to bring some sort of rough justice to the seas, suppressing some of the worst excesses. Even so, some forms of piracy have persisted or reappeared, and the seas can become deadly savage in spite of modern advances in ship building, safety, and weather forecasting.

The sea remains wild in spite of all modern technology.

And, more so than most places in the modern, interlinked world, the sea remains a place of freedom. The phrase "the freedom of the seas" still has meaning.

The sea is still a place where the world-weary can escape from most of society's strictures. It still welcomes adventures. It still calls upon the sailor to be self sufficient and highly adaptable. It calls upon our inner poets and sometimes upon our reserves of inner courage.

Of course, this freedom has a cost, and like all forms of freedom, can fall under siege.

The cost is well known. Anyone who goes down to the sea in ships is at risk. Those who are foolish are at greater risk. The sea respects no persons but is particularly harsh to those who fail to respect it.

And human folly and criminality are in part responsible for continuing assaults on the freedom of the seas.

For every fool who flouts seamanship and common sense, government agencies are ready to write new rules and requirements, taking choice away from sailors. Those who use good judgment eventually pay for the folly of idiots.

For every nation or corporation that plunders common resources, the environment and the rest of humanity suffer. Species vanish and opportunities for future enjoyment and use disappear, too. Responsible anglers and users suffer, too. Rules may or may not catch up with the criminals, thieves, polluters, and vandals.

My particular concern is with those who sail boats for pleasure. Recreational sailors are relatively innocent of pollution, over-harvesting, and environmental abuse. In fact, sailing is a particularly "green" passion and generally light in its environmental footprint.

But, individual sailors are capable of great folly, recklessness, and self-endangering stupidity. And, this stupidity has certainly caught the attention of increasingly risk-averse societies in the developed world, whose members call for more safety and a reduction in needless death, injury, and loss on the water. And, the regulatory agencies and lawmakers have also become increasingly active.

Some of the measures passed have been good and necessary. Stronger hull scantlings, electrical codes, lifesaving equipment requirements, and crew training can all be good things. Better navigation systems and search and rescue systems are certainly good things and welcomed by almost all sailors.

But, the laws are not always a good fit. And, for some sailors, the laws deprive them of cherished freedoms. For many sailors, the sea is an escape from the constraints of land and the strictures of society.

And so, the dilemma: Sailors want to be free. But, if they're left too free, society is abhorrent at the resulting loss and steps in to take away freedoms.

If we can train sailors to make good decisions and exercise good seamanship, we may be able to head off some of the most intrusive restrictions, many written by landsmen with limited understanding of ships and the sea.

If we fail to exercise good leadership and promote seamanship, then we know that more of our freedoms will be removed.

Education or regulation: What's your choice?


At 7:10 AM, June 09, 2010, Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Regulation: outlaw recreational power yachts. (You can fill in the details!)

At 2:13 PM, June 09, 2010, Blogger JP said...

Good questions, and not just related to sailing. In the end its a question of how much risk a society is prepared to allow - or in some cases allow.

I'm generally in favour of light touch regulation, but then when its someone you know who ends up hurt its hard not to instinctively say that something should be done.

At 3:10 PM, June 12, 2010, Blogger Philee said...

Education, there are already too many laws protecting stupid people.


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