One of the most heroic rescues at sea occurred during the 1996 Vendée Globe, a single-handed non-stop yacht race around the world.
Derek Lundy, in his book Godforsaken Sea, describes how force 11 winds (110 km) and five-storey waves capsized racer Raphaël Dinelli in the Southern Ocean. Another racer, Pete Goss, turned his boat around to beat 160 miles against gale-force winds for 36 hours to find Dinelli and save his life. Lundy writes, “Goss was responding to the unwritten law of the sea, the sailor’s prime directive: that aid must be rendered to anyone at sea who asks for help.”
Not so, I’m afraid. The unwritten law of the sea is in fact written all over the world.
The United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) and its member countries have legislated a global obligation to render mariner assistance. The Canada Shipping Act defines this duty to comply as: “the master of a vessel in any water, on receiving a signal from any source that a person, a vessel or an aircraft is in distress, shall proceed with all speed to render assistance.”
Failure to comply can result in a fine of up to $1,000,000 or 18 months imprisonment or both. The only exception is when danger to the rescuer (ignored by Goss) is too great to safely respond.
The ocean doesn’t keep a calendar and doesn’t care Christmas is coming. The same goes for heroes: they happen anyway. In October 2015, Ahousaht fishermen Ken Brown and Clarence Smith saw a single flare and were first on scene to pull survivors aboard when Leviathan II, a whale-watching ship, capsized near Tofino, B.C. When later interviewed for Maclean’s Magazine, Brown said, “I’m not a hero … I won’t ever accept that: I don’t agree to it, I don’t embrace it. People needed help, and I was there.”
How do we reconcile the legal obligation to rescue with our desire to reward heroes? Even the IMO website title banner reads: 2022 IMO Award for Exceptional Bravery at Sea.
Does the world need a rule to enforce rescue? When the call for help comes you can’t say maybe later, or lunch is ready. Pete Goss said, “It’s just what you do when someone’s in trouble … you either stand by your morals and principles or you don’t.”
Sources: Canada Shipping Act – https://bit.ly/3hvavN4
Macleans Magazine: macleans.ca/sinking-of-leviathan-ii/
Godforsaken Sea, Derek Lundy
Barb Thomson is a boating enthusiast who writes regular columns for the Comox Valley Record.