Safety at Sea | Captain David Bugeja

Captain David Bugeja, Chief Officer of the Ports & Yachting Directorate within Transport Malta (TM) on safety precautions one must take before embarking on a journey out at sea, and TM’s Safety at Sea campaigns

“Apart from establishing new designated swimmer zones, TM has also taken the initiative of placing a number of speed markers”
“Apart from establishing new designated swimmer zones, TM has also taken the initiative of placing a number of speed markers”

Concerns about safety at sea start to crop up at the beginning of every summer, same as with other forms of transport.

Apart from notices to mariners issued in the government gazette and uploaded on the Department of Information and Transport Malta's website, the internet is also filled with abundant information about achieving a good standard of safety at sea. Transport Malta has now also made available a GIS tool which maps out the maritime installations, marker buoys and swimmers zones at

How many mariners do make use of this information before embarking on a journey out at sea though? And how many of them behave prudently?

According to Captain Bugeja, "people are not always aware that on a regular basis we issue notices to mariners either through the government gazette or on our website informing mariners of what's going on in our waters. We also broadcast the weather forecast every four hours and any other relevant information that could be of interest to mariners.

"These sources of information are vital when planning your day out at sea but more than that the internet is a great source of information which provides a wide range of educational material such as seamanship and on the prevention of collisions at sea regulations."

Regarding safety concerns at sea, Bugeja says that "similar to other modes of transport, there will always be concerns. With respect to safety at sea, one of the most important initiatives taken by the Authority was the implementation of a nautical licence for those who use an engine of more than 30hp".

The nautical license is acquired only after having undergone a nautical training course and an examination.

What safety measures and campaigns has the Authority executed?

Bugeja says that "Transport Malta embarks on a safety and sea campaign year after year to remind people of the safety precautions and the risks involved which a boat owner should take into consideration before embarking on a journey out at sea.

"To complement this, the Authority has designated what are referred to as swimmer zones which act as a safety measure by marking and delineating areas designated for bathers with the use of buoys."

It is prohibited for any craft to navigate within the swimmer zones or to use buoys and tackle of the swimmer zones for mooring purposes.

He adds: "Although we have designated and marked these swimmer zones, it doesn't exclude the possibility that some swimmers at times wander off outside the designated zones and boaters should still be aware of this possibility and keep a good lookout."

I ask Bugeja if he has seen a decrease in accidents after having implemented such zones.

"We can only refer to accidents officially reported to the Authority and although we have registered a sufficient increase in the number of craft deployed year after year (both in commercial craft comprising of harbour and round Malta cruises, and recreational craft) we haven't seen an increase in accidents at sea, proof that the safety at sea culture among the Maltese boat owners is improving."

And what equipment has Transport Malta invested in to make our seas safer?

"I think the most important infrastructure that the Authority has set up is the Vessel Traffic Services, which replaces the traditional 'Turetta'. The VTS, which also carries out the function of 'Port Control' is operated on a 24/7,"  Bugeja says.

As port operations and offshore maritime services continue to develop, the VTS is essential.

The Harbour Master says that "the aim behind VTS is to provide an information service and manage and organise maritime traffic, focusing mainly on the movements of the ships that sail into our ports while also coordinating and informing those who man commercial and recreational craft".

In respect of sea craft the Authority has the Harbour Master's Launch and 2 RHIBs manned by TM Enforcement Officers and Port Inspectors which are used to carry out patrols at sea and inspections. Two small dinghies are also used in summer to facilitate and assist boaters in popular bays.

"As Harbour Master, my job is also to maintain good order in the ports and approaches and also to manage matters relating to the safety of navigation. This is very important when one considers the number and size of ships that are continuously arriving and departing from our ports: the container and cargo ships that bring all the goods, cruise liners, passenger ferries.

"These are things that the public sometimes takes for granted, but behind the goods you find on the shelves in shops and supermarkets and the materials need in the manufacturing industry there is a complex transport chain that involves the port industry: the ship agent and freight forwarders, the port workers, terminals, pilots, tugs, mooring men etc and of course the Ports and Yachting Directorate of TM that regulates, but more importantly facilitates this important industry.

"Enforcement at sea is done through TM's Enforcement Directorate in collaboration with the Administrative Law Enforcement (ALE) within the Police Force, and the Armed Forces. With both we have an excellent working relationship and this is very important because we can maximise on our resources and can be effective. If a boat or ship calls us for assistance we would immediately liaise with the concerned authorities to attend to any problem that may ensue. On the whole, there's a good synergy between all the authorities concerned," the captain says.

As certain beaches become even more popular, so does the demand for new swimmer zones. According to Bugeja, three new zones have been established for this summer in the Tigne, Cirkewwa and Marsaxlokk areas.

And with designated swimmer zones come a number of regulations mariners must abide to.

"When out on patrols TM's personnel task is to ensure that mariners are respecting and adhering to the regulations both at sea and in the popular beaches. Of course we cannot be at all the bays at the same time and in the peak season we tend to concentrate on the places that are very busy, such as Mellieha and the Blue Lagoon.

"In Comino we have also designated anchorages to keep commercial and recreational boats organised. The small dinghies I mentioned earlier are deployed to assist boat owners and guide them to the right anchorage.

"Furthermore, the Authority's has also placed a number of speed markers (maximum speed displayed on yellow buoys) to ensure that mariners navigating close to shore or a bay don't exceed the maximum speed limit. The buoys also serve as an early indicator that you are close to a point of interest so the prudent mariner should reduce speed even before he actually sees what is written on the buoy," Bugeja says.

The law stipulates that a mariner should keep at least 300 metres away from a sandy beach or 200 metres from a rocky beach when navigating with a speed 10 knots. This however is the maximum mariners should navigate at a safe speed according to the circumstances and conditions and observe speed limits indicated on buoys, including those at the entrances to marinas.

According to the directorate's chief, a number of reef markers have also been placed to indicate a navigational hazard.

"It's quite a challenge to mark all the reefs, however we have started by placing markers on certain reefs found in or near popular bays such as Bahar ic-Caghaq and outside Marsalforn."

While on the subject of speed limits, Bugeja emphasises that "even if a mariner has a boat with less than 30hp, there's nothing wrong in taking a training course.

"Although the law stipulates that a mariner owning a boat with an engine of 30hp and over is required to undergo a training course beforehand and obtain a licence, all mariners and boaters are encouraged to take one of the various training courses available on the market. These courses are available from both private training centres and MCAST's Maritime Institute.

"In other words, where it's not mandatory, people should take the initiative of better informing themselves and acquiring basic seamanship knowledge."

What safety precautions must a mariner take before embarking on a sea journey?

"TM has also taken the initiative of printing waterproof safety at sea checklist leaflets, both in English and Maltese, and which are being distributed to mariners.

"These are very practical and mariners should use them. Good planning and having basic equipment might save your life!

"Among its safety recommendations where mariners are reminded about swimmer zones designated exclusively for swimmers, speed limits, and night safety procedures, the leaflet includes a list of useful emergency telephone numbers and other vital information that assists the owner or skipper of a boat."

The mariners' guide recommends that boat owners carry basic equipment such as waterproof first-aid kits, fire extinguishers and a GPS, a life-raft or dinghy and of course life jackets for every one on board. It is also a good practice to wear life jackets when out at sea, this is definitely recommended for kids.

Finally, what are the most common causes of accidents at sea?

Bugeja says that there are three crucial factors one must take note of: a) keep a constant lookout at all times; b) move at a safe speed at all times, according to the circumstances and the conditions (it's one thing if you are a mile away and there's nobody in the vicinity and it's another if you are close to a swimmer zone, especially in the peak of summer; and c) courtesy and being prudent.

Why speed past a smaller stationery boat only to make it roll as a result, which can also lead it to capsize or someone on board getting injured?

Bugeja adds that "when you are very close to the sea level on a boat the visible horizon at sea is close so something in the water may be seen at very short notice.

Mariners should keep a watchful eye for smaller boats and divers. On the other hand, divers should make sure that they use appropriate markers such as floats or A-flags as an indication to boat owners".

Finally, Bugeja stresses that "having a nautical license doesn't necessarily make a boat owner or anyone driving a boat an expert at handling emergency situations that one may experience at sea.

Everyone should be aware of his limits and also the boat that he is using. Everyone is entitled to enjoy the sea but they should also look out for the safety of others".