Beyond the Headlines

Questioning the captains' decision

Posted: Feb 26, 2013 1:12 PM ET Last Updated: Feb 26, 2013 1:12 PM ET
What were they doing out there is those weather conditions?
It's a question being asked over and over again in communities from Neil's Harbour to Wood's Harbour, as Nova Scotians try to come to grips with the death of five young fishermen.
At the same time, that same question was asked repeatedly at a U.S. Coast Guard board of inquiry in Portsmouth, Virginia into the sinking of the tall ship HMS Bounty.
Under scrutiny: the actions of a captain barely out of high school and a captain who had decades of experience sailing the high seas.
Katlin Todd Nickerson, age 21, and his crew on the Miss Ally were out trying to make a living, chasing the lucrative halibut fishery, when their boat capsized in seas 8-10 metres high and hurricane-force winds. We may never know why Nickerson and his crew chose to stay out at sea, rather than head to the nearest port ahead of the storm.
Robin Wallbridge, age 63, decided to set sail because he felt his tall ship HMS Bounty  --  a ship that he had sailed around the world several times --  would be safer at sea trying to sail ahead of Hurricane Sandy rather than meeting it head on tied up at port.
Wallbridge's decision cost not only his life, but the life of a 42 year-old crew member. It also forced the U.S. Coast Guard to dispatch rescue personnel and helicopters in horrific weather conditions to risk their lives saving 14 other crew members who miraculously made it into life rafts.
At the inquiry, Wallbridge's actions were questioned by many, including other members of the tall ship fraternity. Several tall ship captains, including Captain Dan Moreland, skipper of the Lunenburg-based Picton Castle, told the inquiry they wouldn't even consider sailing into, or anywhere near, a hurricane the size of Sandy in the North Atlantic in October.
For centuries the decision to set sail, or to ride out a storm at sea, has been left exclusively to the captain of the ship. Now some are suggesting it may be time to take that decision out of the captain's hands.
In an interview with the CBC, Stewart Franck of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia, says maybe fishermen should consider some sort of process where authorities could order vessels to head to a safe port when major storms are approaching.
It's a suggestion that will no doubt be vigorously debated by those who make their living at sea. Unlike teachers and school staff, who get paid to stay home on a storm day, or those of us who still get paid when we call in sick, it costs fishermen to keep their boats tied up at port.
Fishermen will argue, that although they work in one of most dangerous occupations, captains make these kinds of decisions every day, and almost every time they bring their vessels and their crew home safely.
It's like flying on a commercial airline. Thousands take off and land every day; we only hear about the very few that don't land safely.
Still it's a debate worth having. 

It's rarely the weather alone that sends ships, and sometimes their crews, to their watery graves. But as we've seen far too often at sea,  when things go bad in bad weather, they really go bad.  
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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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