Lawlessness on the high seas?

In what appears to be a repetition of the experience with motoring on land, the regulations and enforcement have not evolved in step with the boating revolution itself

The number of boating accidents appears on the increase, with at least two or three cases reported to the police every weekend.
There were three such accidents reported just last Sunday alone. One man sustained serious injuries in a collision between two boats near St Paul’s islands; later, a boater needed to be rescued after capsizing at roughly the same spot.

That same evening, three men were taken to hospital on Sunday evening after a boat overturned at sea between Xlendi and Dwejra off Gozo.

Such accidents, which frequently involve collision, may only be the tip of the iceberg, because many incidents are not reported and settled directly between parties concerned.

The increase in accidents is not in itself suprising, because the number of boats in Maltese waters has likewise also increased substantially in recent years. Owning a boat is no longer considered the pastime of the very rich; with a 20ft second-hand boat costing less than €10,000, buying a boat is now within the financial means of almost anyone.

Often, in fact, it is cheaper than buying a car… though most will not necessarily realise that the upkeep, maintenance, berthing fees, etc., make it a much more costly commodity in the long term.

But the fact remains that the seas around Malta are home to many more private boats than ever before. New yacht marinas, such as the one in Pieta’ creek, Sa Maison, are fully booked before completion: attesting to an ever-growing demand, which is separately evidenced by the sheer number of pleasure craft - power or sailing - and other vessels like jet skis, that are visible in any bay during throughout the week.

In what appears to be a repetition of the experience with motoring on land, the regulations and enforcement have not evolved in step with the boating revolution itself.

The number of cars on Maltese roads skyrocketed exponentially in the late 1980s/early 1990s… when government used to cite the growing ratio of cars per household as an indicator of economic growth.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Yet it was well into the mid-1990s that seatbelts were made mandatory for the first time. The breathalyser was introduced later, and to this day remains only ever used after an accident has already taken place.

Moreover, it remained altogether too easy to obtain a drivers’ licence until much more recently still: it was only in the last 10 years that the driving test procedures were revised from scratch; and ‘reversing through barrels’ is no longer considered proof enough of one’s motoring skills to be granted a licence.

Likewise, ‘more boats at sea’ does not necessarily translate into more or better regulations being in place. Nor does it signify that today’s boat-owners are necessarily more au courant than their predecessors about the rules.

There in fact seems to be very low appreciation of the rules of the sea here, and even the most basic rules – e.g. keeping to the port side of an oncoming vessel - are more often ignored than not.

This is not helped by the fact that obtaining a license to own and operate a power vessel is even easier than it once was for cars. Transport Malta offers a four-day course, at the end of which one will be issued a license. The theory sessions purport to ‘work through various laws that relate to using a vessel around local bays and on the open sea, safety equipment/issues, basic navigation, high speed operation and engine care/maintenance.’

There is a practical boat-handling session, and also first aid and fire safety training.

It is however debatable whether such an extensive curriculum can be covered in a mere four days. Perhaps a more stringent testing process is called for.

Enforcement is another area which seems to be lagging behind. Transport Malta enforcers naturally cannot be everywhere at all times. But the number of boats being what it is, and MT inspectors being already as extremely overstretched as they are, in practice they very often cannot be present anywhere at all.

This in turn gives rise to more recklessness. Boat owners know that enforcement officers cannot be expected to keep the peace in all of Malta’s bays all day long; and they often abuse this shortcoming. Haphazard, careless and even criminal behaviour can often be witnessed, with speedboats and jet skis whizzing past other boats and vessels, as well as swimmers.

Perhaps it is time that some bays are closed to fast craft, including jet skis, to ensure the safety of swimmers.

On a separate note, it is debatable whether our national seamanship infrastructure is in itself up to scratch. Boat owners are also currently complaining about the lack of updated local nautical charts; as many wrecks and reefs are not indicated on existing versions, and cause extensive damage.

As Malta clearly depends so much on its maritime sector – for tourism purposes, for fishing, for its own leisure pursuits - perhaps the time has come to overhaul our approach to regulating behaviour on the high seas.

And as with vehicular traffic, we can only hope it will not take a major tragedy to finally force the authorities to take stock of the situation.

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