Between the devil and the deep blue sea

After conducting too many Cat One inspections to count, 82-year old Lester Smith is proud to say, “I haven’t had a boat sink on me yet.”
After conducting too many Cat One inspections to count, 82-year old Lester Smith is proud to say, “I haven’t had a boat sink on me yet.”

Kiwi songwriter, Tony King, perfectly captured the sailor's lament in his, "Sea of Dreams"

Out of sight of land a man can be what he wants to be

Sail a course by the stars on a sea of dreams.....

Cast me off, set me free, foreign shores are calling me

And the great unknown of the deep blue sea.

Yes, out there we are masters of our own fate, captains of our crafts, with the authority to marry and bury at sea. But before we can answer the call of foreign shores there is, by law, a call of our own we must make - to a certified Category One Inspector.

I have lived a lifetime out there on that "great unknown of the deep blue sea". It is a crucible, a testing ground, one that demands decisions and imposes consequences. It fosters a strong sense of self reliance and personal responsibility. Thus, like most skippers, I feel that I know what's best for me, my vessel and crew and don't relish the thought of having someone else deciding if we are fit for sea or not. But the crux of the problem is that there will always be those few individuals and crafts that pose not only a danger to themselves and crew, but to the people whose responsibility it is to go out there and rescue them when it all goes terribly wrong.

After multiple mishaps it was inevitable that government would eventually intervene. Defining and enforcing the complex rules and regulations required could have easily ended up the responsibility of a land-lubber, bureaucratic desk-jockey in Wellington - a scenario no one welcomed. Thus, under the auspices of Maritime New Zealand, Boating New Zealand took up the best compromise available to them - self regulation.  They gathered together the nation's most experienced sailors to create a criteria and process that would work best for racing and cruising purposes.

The result of their efforts basically lies between the covers of "Safety Regulations of Sailing". This is a mini-tome that covers issues from the macro to the micro. I have just read it. Admittedly, I did not agree with each and every requirement. But to their credit the authors were specific but not purposely pedantic. In other words, all legal and philosophical issues aside, any yacht setting to sea could and probably should adhere to these protocols.

To put a face to this governing body I called Lester Smith, a long time YNZ Inspector, who agreed to an interview. Any fears I had about finding an officious technocrat wielding a big badge and rubber stamp were immediately dispelled. Lester is a friendly and cheerful man with a lifelong love of the sea and a deep knowledge of sailing and sailboats. As a past commodore of the Onerahi Yacht Club and officer on innumerable racing committees, he also has extensive organizational experience. He was instrumental in the original formation of Cat One criteria, and even at 82 years old, is still active in the ongoing evolution of the rules and regulations.  

"The boats have changed so much over the years," he says. "The average cruising boat now has more sophisticated safety equipment than the most expensive yachts of years gone by. With EPIRBS, radars, AIS, e-mail, cell phones, communication is no longer a problem. And the boats are typically so strong and seaworthy now. And attitudes have changed. Now, when I ask a skipper to show me a back-up for a piece of equipment, he shows me the back-up for the back-up. We don't see many of those sea-tramp types anymore."

As we poured over the records of his innumerable past inspections it is clear to me that, although he tries to tick all the boxes on his worksheet, he is looking for something else, something intangible. A skipper who clearly has the experience, the crew, the equipment, and pre-planned strategies to deal with emergencies at sea, but might be amiss on a small technicality, is likely to get an approving nod from Lester. But someone who, ticked boxes aside, has no actual sea-sense might find themselves under closer scrutiny. But Lester sees his purpose not so much to grant or deny certification, but to mentor along an aspiring cruiser towards a successful inspection.

If our choices must lay somewhere between the devil of ponderous governmental bureaucracy and the uncontrolled anarchy of the deep blue sea, this thorough, thoughtful and fair-handed compromise is one we can live with in both senses of the word.

Alvah Simon

Boating NZ