19 February 2006

Death In The Harbor

All is not perfect in Paradise. The island is abuzz with gossip about a harbor accident last week that happened about ten minutes before we arrived at the water's edge restaurant La Marine, for traditional Thursday night moules et frites-- mussels and french fries. The mussels come in from Brittany on a boat arriving every Thursday, and La Marine, and others too, I guess, serve them Thursday and Friday night.

The harbor set-up is as follows: imagine a rectangle about the proportions of the new HDTV television picture, i.e. much wider than it is tall. That is Gustavia Harbor, with the western end of the rectangle open to the sea. Ships and boats are parked perpendicular to the three walls of the rectangle, the smaller boats are deeper into the harbor, nose in to the dock, and ships closer to the harbor entrance, stern to the dock. (The difference between a ship and a boat is immediately appreciated upon recognition that ships carry boats.) Much of the space in the center of the harbor rectangle is taken up with moored sailboats, which are tethered fore and aft to moorings affixed to the harbor floor, so they do not dance in the wind.

But this small harbor can in no way handle the hundreds of boats that visit here or call St. Barts their home port (E.G., moi). As a result, many boats anchor just outside the rectangle in what is called "the outer harbor," and are still in the lee, protected from the prevailing east wind. Others are in Public, which is the next bay to the west, (about 500 yards further out,) or in Corossol Harbor, where my boat is, which is another 750 yards further west of the main harbor and downtown Gustavia.

Most of these boats 35 feet and longer have people living on them who need to come ashore for supplies, recreation, whatever. This is done via dinghy, (a/k/a tender) which in most cases is a rubber boat powered by a small outboard engine. Some of the large ships carry a tender made of fiberglass that may be as long as 25 feet or so. So at any one time, there are dozens of tenders zipping around the harbor, and when they come all the way into the main harbor, their visibility is restricted by the sailboats moored in the center of the harbor.

Nighttime is particularly hairy. Sun sets early, at about 6:15 now. It is pitch black dark by 7:00. That, of course, is the start of dinner hour, or at least on-shore cocktail time, and surprisingly, many of the dinghies have no lights.

There is a 3 knot speed limit in the harbor. (That is approximately 3.3 mph.) You have no idea how slow three knots is until you try to go that slow in a boat. Anyway, there is no enforcement of the limit, and as a result it is completely ignored. NOBODY travels at three knots. Nobody.

All these facts came together in an ugly way last week.

A French couple, on a world tour in their sailboat, arrived late Thursday, dropped anchor in the outer harbor, and at about 7 PM got into their Zodiac to travel to the far (eastern) end of the harbor to eat at the sushi place on the waterfront there. But once inside the harbor, their rubber boat was run down by a fiberglass tender piloted by a New Zealander whose sailboat was anchored in Public. Witnesses say the fibreglass boat was traveling very fast. The fiberglass tender literally climbed over the Zodiac, instantly killing its operator, and seriously injuring his wife, who was rushed by speedboat to the hospital in St. Martin.

A judicial inquiry has been opened. The local press reports the New Zealander faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and "reckless injury" to the wife. While I think he is not in jail (reports vary on this question), he clearly is confined to this island for an indefinite period of time. I did inquire whether there was a jail here. I am told there is a "very small" lock-up at the Gendarmerie (just up the street from our house) and a "real jail" in Guadalupe, which is said to be a horror.

Meanwhile the issue of tenders speeding about the harbor is on everyone's gossip agenda.

The Mayor, who apparently has almost unlimited power on this island, spoke about the accident in his Saturday radio talk. (I did not know he had such a program. I know the President of the United States has a Saturday radio talk, and I recall Mayor LaGuardia on the radio reading the comics on Sunday morning during a newspaper strike, but... .) I am told that Mayor Magras had unkind things to say about the New Zealander, tho my information comes from Laura, our maid, whose French is poor and who heard only a fragment of the radio talk. Of course, the Harbormaster had something to say too, but even with my French-English dictionary, I could not figure out from the newspaper article I read exactly what was on his mind. Doubtless he was defensive over the lack of enforcement of speed and lighting requirements. Those appear to be the major issues.

First, there is no sign anywhere telling/reminding people of the 3 knot limit. On Long Island, there are one or more such signs in every anchorage and marina.

Moreover, the Harbormaster and his crew go home at 5 PM. There is no police presence on the water after that, and after five is a time of maximum traffic, minimum light.

I have no information whether the Zodiac had lights, or whether they were working, tho my insurance broker downplays that issue because there was a full moon in a cloudless sky that night. All vessels are required to be lighted in some form, from dusk to dawn. All vessels over 7 meters (21 feet) are required to show, from dusk to dawn, a red side light to port, a green side light to starboard, and a 360 degree white light. The colored lights tell you which direction the boat is going (You see a red light, you know the other boat is going from your right to your left. That means he has the right of way. Red means stop. Easy, huh? The system assumes every boat is going forward, not at all an unreasonable presumption.) Boats under 7 meters are required to show the white 360 degree light, and must show the red and green side lights "where practicable." I am not sure what the latter phrase means. Just when is it not practible to show those lights? The marine catalogs sell little battery operated lights that stick on to rubber dinghies for this purpose. Yet it is my observation that 90+% of the tenders are rubber boats, and less than half of them show any kind of light at all.

And then there is always the demon rum factor, more serious at night than in the day. I have zero information that alcohol was involved, but I cannot help but be suspicious (as I definitely am in the case of the Vice-President of the United States, who, after a lunch in which alcohol was served and during which he admits drinking --"one beer", yeah right-- shot a hunter WHO WAS STANDING ON THE GROUND. THIS WAS QUAIL HUNTING, NOT DEER HUNTING. SPORTSMEN DO NOT SHOOT BIRDS --OR PEOPLE-- ON THE GROUND. Sure glad the Texas constabulary immediately did a sobriety test on the Veep. Not.)

Back to my island: The speed and night-time patrol issues in this accident are the ones that have "legs", I think, and I would not be surprised to see something done about it. The lighting issue is also noteworthy. Why somebody would go out on the water at night without lights is beyond my comprehension. I always hated boating at night. Even with lights, radar, sonar, the whole deal, I hated it, crawled along, and went out only for fireworks on July 4. (Of course, that's when all the other drunks were out too!)

I will try to keep up with events. Perhaps Paul Weiss has closed the Paris office too soon: I cannot even offer the New Zealander my services. Methinks he needs me.

A bientot.

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