and now for something completely different…

with the passing of the old year and entry of the new, the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (along with the Department for Transport, Environment Agency, Scottish Executive, and others) has brought into force a new National Boatmaster’s Licence, intended to bring the UK into compliance with EC Directive 96/50/EC. licencing of those who operate vessels on any nation’s waterways is extremely desireable from the public point of view, though the UK already had various licences required for operators of maritime and inland vessels – this new licence just eliminates local licencing in favour of a new national standard.

what is worrisome, however, is that it supersedes stricter local regulations. most concerning to me is the supercedance of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. created by Act of Parliament in 1555, they have been the organisation that controlled who had charge of the numerous riverine vessels that plied the Thames. under their rules, it took five years (and a minimum age of 21) to qualify as a master of a passenger or cargo vessel on the Thames. under the new rules, an 18-year-old with only 360 days on the river can qualify.

experience is critical to a riverine pilot. rivers are one of, if not the, most difficult bodies of water for vessels to travel on. locations of shifting sand bars and currents, low bridges, wrecks, tidal changes in channel depth and current speed – all can only be learned safely while on the job with an experienced mentor. while the 360-day requirement is in-line with the US Coast Guard’s requirements for First Class Pilots, most local pilot organizations in the USA require more service than the Coast Guard minimum. with the multitude of safety issues on the Thames (the horrifying Marchioness disaster, while possibly the most memorable, is only one of many accidents that have occurred on the river), as well as the security concerns everyone must keep in mind in today’s world, it seems foolish to effectively reduce standards of licencing.

to give some idea of what Thames rivermen deal with every day, the Port of London serves around 12,500 commercial vessels per year, averaging more than 34 ships per day. this figure ignores local traffic: these are oceangoing vessels only. for comparison, South Carolina’s three ports (which are the fifth or sixth largest in the nation depending on statistics) handle slightly more than six ships per day. total. for anyone who is used to observing the bustle of our local harbour, it seems obvious how much more complex the Thames River’s traffic must be.

while there is criticism of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen for running what is in effect a “closed shop,” that’s no reason to lower training standards. particularly when other EU nations have received exemptions for masters on their more difficult rivers (the Rhine, for example). one hopes, even though the law has already gone into effect, that some compromise in the name of safety will be reached.

quote of the day:

“It is not the ship so much as the skilled sailing that assures the prosperous voyage.” – George William Curtis


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: