Dáil Éireann - Volume 451 - 05 April, 1995

Adjournment Debate. - Leisure Crafting Restrictions.

Mr. H. Byrne: I thank the Chair for giving me the opportunity to highlight this issue and the Minister for the Marine for coming in to respond, giving this matter the attention it deserves.

A series of fatalities highlight just how dangerous are the waters in Waterford harbour. The Hook lighthouse, the oldest in Europe, is a 1,000 year old monument to those who have died. There will always be an unavoidable level of risk in seafaring but at least some of the seven deaths in this area in the past three years should have been avoided. The deaths of two canoeists about one month ago occurred on a day when trawlers did not put out to sea because of bad weather. The others who died did not have the necessary local knowledge.

Safety must be the overriding concern in using our waters for leisure crafting. There is a need for the Department of the Marine to institute a safety system. Ideas, such as ensuring that local expert knowledge of fishermen and others is availed of or a red flag system similar to [1463] the one in operation on beaches, should be considered. Leisure activities should be subject by law to stringent health and safety standards and groups and individuals who fail to comply should be barred, as people who are careless at sea are a deadly danger to themselves and others. I cite our drink driving laws as an example of the regulations I want to see introduced. Draconian laws should be strictly enforced. I do not want to be a spoilsport but I am sure the Minister who has an interest in this matter understands what I am saying. All too often I have walked along the shoreline of Dollar Bay to Hook lighthouse with willing volunteers and grieving families searching for a sign of life but have yet to find it.

Measures which should be enforced include the mandatory inclusion of reflective stripes on bouyancy jackets, wet suits, helmets and lifejackets. On a summer's day the waters off the Hook lighthouse might look like a playground; in reality they are a graveyard. The time has come for the Department of the Marine to police more strictly the way we use our waters; lives depend on it.

I compliment and pay tribute to the Naval Service, the RNLI, sub-aqua clubs, in particular the Hook sub-aqua club, the coast and cliff rescue service and lighthouse keepers who, unfortunately, are a dying breed.

Mr. Kenneally: I, too, thank the Chair for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter and thank the Minister for coming in to respond.

My colleague and I initiated this debate not because of the most recent tragedy in Waterford harbour but because of the series of disasters and near tragedies that have occurred over a long period. I have been concerned for some time about the craft putting out to sea in unsuitable weather conditions. Many of these vessels are built by well meaning individuals in their own garages during the winter, perhaps as a [1464] hobby. While they look lovely at home and people cannot wait for the summer to come to launch their pride and joy into the deep, tragically, in many cases they are building their own coffins.

I know from my many contacts with fishermen in my constituency that they are extremely concerned about the lack of control which allows such craft to put to sea without any proper checks being carried out as to their sea-worthiness. Many of the people concerned have no knowledge of how to handle such craft or cope if the weather turns bad. They would not know whether the wind was coming from an easterly or a westerly direction. The arrogance of some of these people is unbelievable. Fishermen who offer advice are often told to mind their own business but eventually have to tow these vessels back to safety. Dunmore East is one of our major fishery ports. There is hardly a fisherman in that port who at one time or another has not towed one of these vessels back into the harbour.

We only hear about the incidents in which there has been loss of life but during the years there have been hundreds of near tragedies which have not been reported. Legislation or regulations should be brought into force to require certification before any vessel is allowed on to the water. Cars have to fulfil MOT requirements while aeroplanes are rigorously checked but there are no regulations for marine craft. It should be mandatory for anybody wishing to set sail to have some basic knowledge of the sea. It is strange that while there are safety measures in force for air and road travel there is none for sea travel.

Minister for the Marine (Mr. Coveney): I refer the Deputies to my statement during the course of the Adjournment Debate on 22 February last when I dealt with the tragedy at Dunmore East involving the sad loss of two canoeists, some of which is relevant [1465] to this discussion. My remarks tonight will not relate specifically to that accident; I do not yet have the report although I expect to receive it shortly.

There has been something of a boom in recent years in the number of Irish water sports enthusiasts. The range of such activity now embraces sailing boats, canoes, speed boats, surfers, jetskis, anglers, windsurfers, rowing boats, dinghies and perhaps others I cannot recall. This is, no doubt, a reflection of increased affluence, greater availability of leisure time and a growing appreciation of the wonderful amenity we have in our marine and inland waters. This is a development I very much welcome.

Recent tragedies and near fatalities involving leisure craft have, however, served to highlight the downside of this increasing participation in leisure crafting. While such incidents are tragic, that so many of them are preventable adds to our sense of sadness. Investigations by the Department of the Marine have shown time and again that the lives of boating enthusiasts have been lost because of a failure to adhere to basic safety practices.

Some people believe that the solution to this problem lies in increased legislation and regulation. This opinion tends to be voiced particularly in the aftermath of a tragedy involving leisure craft. This is an understandable reaction. It is, however, the considered opinion of many involved in this sector that formal State regulation of leisure craft activity would be neither appropriate nor practicable. I concur with this view. Even if the State were to undertake a regulatory safety role in the operation of leisure craft activities, it would be extremely difficult to monitor and enforce as people do not wish to feel the heavy hand of the State in their leisure pursuits.

The main role of the State has related to increasing general awareness of the need for basic safety practice as well as [1466] encouraging the representative associations and clubs to regulate their members. The Department of the Marine's annual safety awareness campaign will once again this year exhort the general public to “take time to think safety before taking to the water”. This message will be reinforced through a series of meetings with leisure craft representative bodies, radio and newspaper advertising and the distribution of posters and leaflets setting out basic safety precautions. As part of this year's safety awareness campaign, I will shortly launch a code of safe practice for leisure craft, which has been drawn up by officials of my Department in consultation with the sector's representative bodies. We are also considering means of encouraging and requiring water sportswear manufacturers to incorporate reflective stripes in their products.

Everybody embarking on trips aboard leisure craft should set time aside for safety planning. This should include, as a minimum, wearing a lifejacket at all times and, offshore, particularly in hours of darkness, a safety harness; checking and taking account of the weather forecast for the area; checking locally regarding dangerous currents and strong tides — that is often best done by speaking to fishermen and people who know the area; checking the condition of the boat and its equipment; carrying an alternative means of propulsion, where that is possible, such as an additional oar, etc.; carrying a first aid kit and flares and, for larger boats, a marine radio or some means of communicating with the shore; leaving word ashore of proposed departure and arrival times, as well as details of the trip planned and, finally, being able to swim.

I am well aware that the majority of water sports enthusiasts, and their representative bodies, are responsible and educated in matters of safety but there are many more who have yet to realise that adhering to basic safety precautions [1467] can save their lives and the lives of others. I will ensure that our efforts to get this message across will be intensified in the coming months but I am reluctant to get into the business of heavy-handed State regulation, although that may ultimately come.

I thank Deputies Byrne and Kenneally for raising this most important subject in the House, particularly at this [1468] time of year which marks the beginning of the main boating season. I know their particular concern relates to leisure activities in Waterford harbour — unfortunately for good reason — but they will appreciate this is an issue of relevance right around our coast.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 6 April 1995.