Heroes of the sea
One of the more sickening pieces of news this week, was a report that crewmen of the RNLI were heckled by members of the public when bringing ashore asylum-seekers that they had picked up in the channel. Nigel “I-tell-it-how-it-is” Farage commented that the RNLI is acting as a taxi service for people traffickers. One can always rely on Nigel for a thoughtful contribution ...
There has been much comment on the story, but I thought I would add my own two penn’orth since I have had first hand experience of being rescued in the channel.
The RNLI is a charity entirely supported by public donations. Its crewmen are volunteers; they put their lives on the line to save anyone and everyone in trouble at sea. They do this regardless of who the persons are, or whether they have recklessly put themselves at risk, like the yachtsman a few years ago, who was rescued three times in as many days trying to sail to Ireland using an AA road atlas for navigation. In any case, there is an unwritten rule at sea that anyone aware of someone afloat who is in trouble, for whatever reason, is duty bound to provide assistance.
The English Channel is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Large ships travel in two approximately five-mile-wide shipping lanes, north-eastern going traffic close to the English coast, south-western traffic near the French coast. These ships are generally travelling at 20 – 25 knots (25-30 mph). Because of their size and speed, changing course to avoid obstacles seen at the last minute is well-nigh impossible. Their radar and AIS (an electronic system by which a ship’s position, speed, and course is visible to any other ship) allow them to avoid collisions and this is, in any case, minimised by the strict one-way system operating. Small boats are very difficult to see visually except in perfect conditions, they are usually capable of only a few knots of speed, and do not show up on radar; migrant boats do not have AIS.
There is, therefore, a very significant risk of these small refugee boats being run down by large freighters that not only cannot see them, but even if they could see them, would have great difficulty in avoiding a collision. This is quite apart from the danger of overloaded boats full of untrained people being swamped or running out of fuel.
Some years ago I was crossing the channel to France with two friends in a 33 foot sailing yacht equipped with both radar and AIS. As navigator, I was constantly traumatised by seeing ships on the AIS display a few miles away, travelling at 25 knots in our direction but not yet visible over the horizon; in a small boat, the horizon is only around three miles for someone standing up (in any case a hazardous activity in an inflatable dinghy). We were motoring, there being very little wind, and had just crossed into the big ship lane on the French side, when we snagged 100 feet of heavy-duty mooring line floating in the water that someone had helpfully discarded. The line wrapped itself around the propeller, and the engine stopped. We were wallowing, helpless, in the big ship lane.
We contacted the English coastguard and they called out the Dover Lifeboat—no matter that we were in French territorial waters; the RNLI were with us within half an hour. Fortunately, we were able to deploy sail, and made our way very slowly back into the separation zone between the shipping lanes where it was relatively safe. It was a very frightening incident, but the RNLI towed us safely into Dover harbour. They were and are heroes. You can read more details of this incident here: https://www.mirlibooks.com/blog/archives/06-2015
The very good news later in the week, was that donations to the RNLI since the report of heckling had rocketed.
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs