Wednesday, 25 March 2015

No more smoke and mirrors: The new French regulations

Starting in May 2015, French-flagged vessels no longer require smoke (emergency flares) or mirrors (signalling mirror) to sail offshore (> 60 Nautical Miles).  These are to be replaced by an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) that can relay your position via satellite to search and rescue crews.  This is great news.  Beacons are much more precise and they can be activated automatically on contact with salt water if you are unable to reach the beacon at the critical moment.  Flares are messy, only activated manually, prone to failure, and a pain to deal with. They are relatively expensive (about $200 for the formerly-mandatory distress kit), they have to be replaced every couple of years, you have to pay to have the old ones disposed of properly, and frankly, storing pyrotechnics on board always gives me the creeps.

From flares to radio beacons.
And yet, while I’m in favour of embracing proven technology that makes sailing simpler and safer, a few of the new regulations make me a bit uncomfortable.  For instance, it is no longer necessary to have a magnetic compass aboard. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ??!!  I had to re-read that one several times and ask Patrick to check my French interpretation to make sure I was understanding that one correctly.  The new regulations say that a GPS system can replace the compass.  What if you have no electricity or batteries for your GPS?  And what if your GPS burps and sputters at a critical moment as they always seem to do?  Okay, sure, there are always backups and safety protocols, but still… the best back up is to have a magnetic compass on board, no?  For me, the idea of getting rid of the compass ranks right up there with the rumour (sure hope it’s just a rumour) that maritime authorities around the world are questioning the need to maintain navigational buoys since everyone is now equipped with a GPS and knows where they are at all times anyway.

SPRAY's modest but trusty compass.
Several other changes for offshore sailing in 2015 include the requirement to maintain a ship's log anytime you venture more than 6 NM off the coast, the requirement for each life vest to have a waterproof emergency flash light, for boats to be equipped with a hand-held VHF radio, and to have a fixed powerful deck light on the boat to assist with man-overboard searches in the dark.  I think that’s a great idea but I’m still a bit in the dark about how we’re supposed to have something permanently fixed on the boat (like a deck light) that also allows for directional searches required during a MOB situation. 

They also say they are proposing a new composition for the medical first-aid kit, but honestly, after comparing the regulations for 2014 with the new ones, the only difference I see is the requirement to have 4 pairs of medical examination gloves (sizes M and L) instead of the former “1 box of medical examination gloves.”      

But the new rule that is the Talk of the Docks is the new definition of the skipper, or Chef de Bord.  The new wording implies that the skipper is now responsible for ensuring that the crew OBEY safety instructions given to them by the skipper.  Ha !  Ha !  They have got to be joking !  The people making up these rules have CLEARLY never sailed with their spouses !  How do you MAKE someone obey when you’re 200 miles offshore and can’t just pop in to the nearest port and put them off ?  The legal minds in the sailing forum discussions say that if an accident occurred because someone did not obey the orders of the skipper, the skipper could not be held responsible.  If that’s the case, then why have the new regulation at all?  This one is really a mystery, but good fodder for some great sea stories with the sailing buddies !

In general the new regulations make good sense and I welcome them.  We've ordered an EPIRB and found some simple emergency flashlight kits for the life vests.  I’m happy to report that Mareda has 2 magnetic compasses, thank you very much, and unless Spray’s the new owner (whoever he or she may be) insists on having it, I will be keeping my old signalling mirror, too.  Love that little thing.

For the more curious among you, here is a link to summary of new regulations (in French, of course):