Mayday… Amateur skippers all at sea

Greeks have always had a passion for the sea, but over the past 10 years this has translated into a desire to own their own boat, a desire that many were able to fulfill after the stock market boom of 1998-99. Powerboats, inflatable or rigid-hulled, have became extremely popular, with sales of 3-10-meter craft rising by 45 percent between 2001 and 2005. Unfortunately, ignorance and carelessness have led to accidents. Safety is not a given when the operator of the craft lacks even a basic understanding of the sea. To make matters worse, tests for skippers’ licenses are little more than a formality and do not guarantee the skills required to handle a boat in the open sea, as they are carried out close to shore at low speeds. The Panhellenic Union of Boat Crew Instructors says that some would-be skippers don’t even know their craft’s limits, while some licenses are granted under the table. Possession of a boat operator’s license, in other words, means nothing if the holder does not know or does not respect the rules governing priority at sea, how to read nautical maps, or cannot safely stop his or her craft. There are two main reasons for the lack of safety in Greek waters, according to the union. First of all, there is no compulsory training required to obtain a license and, secondly, in practice there is a general lack of seamanship. Union representatives say they have frequently submitted proposals to the Merchant Marine Ministry to rectify the situation, but so far nothing has been done. Moreover, candidates are known to grease palms during the tests, and port officials have been charged with related offenses. «When boat handlers lack even the most basic knowledge, safety is automatically reduced,» said union head Giorgos Mamalis. «In some cases we have seen a complete lack of knowledge of the fundamental rules of seamanship and of priority at sea.» According to Mamalis, the exams are not very difficult but call for specific maneuvers. The candidate is examined only on his or her ability to handle the boat within the confines of the harbor. One instructor, Vassilis Koliopoulos, claims that some studying is required. «A month of just four or five lessons, or even none at all, is not enough to get a license. That is why so many people head out to sea knowing none of the basics, namely how the boat works and how to stop it. They don’t know the boat’s limits. We as instructors insist on candidates knowing seamanship, gaining experience and staying calm. It is of vital importance to know which craft have priority, to be able to understand maps and read latitude and longitude, to know the whereabouts of reefs and shallows and to be able to identify lighthouses.» «Respect for human life is the most important thing at sea,» was the first thing stressed by Lt Commander Andreas Theofilou of the Merchant Marine Ministry’s press bureau. In recent years the increase in the number of pleasure craft has led to accidents. Recently in Porto Rafti’s Tourkolimano, a powerboat crashed into rocks killing one person and injuring another. During 2006, two people died in pleasure boat accidents and six were injured, three swimmers were killed by powerboats whose operators were in violation of the rules. Port authorities have worked out a plan of daily inspections of pleasure boats on the open sea and entering and leaving ports, to check the operator’s license and possession of life-saving equipment. Often, operators are subjected to breathalyzer tests. Boats are not allowed within 100 meters of marker buoys around a swimming beach. They may not approach within 200 meters of the shore in the case of unmarked beaches. In addition, they are prohibited from reaching speeds above 5 knots within 200 meters of the coastline even if there are no swimmers. Powerboats should not approach the wake of a larger craft nor obstruct the course of larger craft, which need more time to reduce speed. At night, the obligatory navigation lights must be used.