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Lessons from the Bounty — Oversight, and Obligation

I wrestle with the concept of oversight.

I have been meaning to get a Coast Guard Auxiliary inspection and sticker for years. I mean, literally years. I’ve downloaded the checklist form like 15 times. And I go through it, and we’ve got one or two things that aren’t quite right but that I can’t afford to fix immediately, and I think, “I’ll get the inspection right after I deal with this…” and before you know it, it’s never been done.

I’ll be honest, I also had a little bit of an issue with my local Coast Guard at the time. More than once I’d tangled with them over the concept of baby PFDs. Short form is, the rules say to do something that isn’t as safe as the thing I was doing, and I got hassled by Coasties in such a way that I couldn’t actually explain the situation, and just ended up changing things long enough for them to get back on their Sea-Doos and skitter off into the sunset (no that’s not a euphemism; they were patrolling on sea-doos, and zipped over to scream at me about my child not wearing a PFD… in the sling… whatever). I wasn’t happy with their “by the book; don’t bother me with common sense” approach, and didn’t think my boat would fare well under their scrutiny, so I just didn’t open myself up for it.

Besides, the USCG in SF Bay has better things to worry about. Last I heard, they were boarding sailboats looking for drugs and illegal aliens.

The situation in Chula Vista was no better. There, the marina gates were locked on the outside *and* the inside, so as to deter smugglers. I later found out that it was the #1 smuggling marina in the US, due to its proximity to the Mexican border. I will never forget the day I opened the gate for an armed, armored group of Coasties, all carrying large automatic weapons, while a helicopter circled overhead. I skittered over to the RV park with my babies, and didn’t come back until the helicopter left.

Those guys *definitely* had better things to worry about than how closely my boat adhered to regs.

But the subtext here is, I feel that the things on my boat that don’t adhere to regs are that way because I have thought it through, and what I’m doing is somehow superior to what they want. I have good reasons for why I’m doing things the way I’m doing them. And I’m confident in my boat and in my choices. Whether or not I have the most current COLREGs sticker up in my galley has absolutely no bearing on how safe my boat is, or the habits of my family (if you’re the sort of creep who throws non-organic debris overboard, the sticker sure isn’t going to stop you, and since we never would, having the 1991 version isn’t the end of the world, in my opinion. The USCG Auxiliary disagrees. Whatever.)

I also glean a great deal of confidence from the fact that, should it all go pear-shaped and we get hit by a submarine or something, that the USCG would be there to save us. I have an EPIRB, and that’s precisely what that means. I monitor Channel 16, and that’s what that means. I know what a Pan and a Security and a Mayday are about, and should we be in distress, I would not hesitate to use them. In fact, when Admiral Allen wrote his brilliant letter protesting cuts, I stood on my chair and cheered and wrote letters to my congresspeople, which did precisely nothing. Meh.

So considering my own on again, off again relationship with oversight, I can’t really say that I blame the Bounty for dodging in and out of a whole maze of regulatory obligations. I am not a fan of blanket regulation, and I think that we need to have laws that allow for the application of contextual common sense. I have a deep, knee-jerk belief that a captain is in charge of the ship, and I have a lot of trouble believing that a captain could want anything other than what is best for his ship.

So when I read about how egregiously Bounty did not adhere to any set of regs that might have applied, part of me feels that that’s not a problem. But then when I read about the Coastie who dislocated his shoulder, and then had to slam it into the helicopter wall to put it back in place so he could keep saving people… in a hurricane… I think… you don’t get to flaunt all the regs and basic common sense, and then call for help. You’ve made their work harder, you’ve put their lives at risk, and that is not acceptable. You may dodge oversight all you like, but you may not dodge the obligation to keep in mind the risk to those you call for help.

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