Senate almost on right track

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (3/03/01)
By Ray Pendleton

Last fall, two Kailua men spent three days adrift in the waters north of O`ahu in an open, 14-foot Boston Whaler.

They were finally rescued after an intense search by the Coast Guard that covered some 51,000 square miles and had an estimated cost of $800,000.

After the incident, it was noted that much of the rescue time and costs - not to mention the anguish of many people - could have been avoided had the boat been equipped with an inexpensive VHF marine radio and/or an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB).

It is, perhaps, in response to that well-publicized rescue that this year's legislature is pondering the merits of a bill that would require all vessels operating in and beyond state waters to have an EPIRB.

The legislation, Senate Bill 216, would amend the Hawaii Revised Statutes to read, "It shall be unlawful to operate any vessel in the waters of the State, other than a canoe, surfboard, or paddleboard, unless the vessel is equipped with a properly functioning EPIRB."

At first glance, the bill appears to be a good thing. But Bill Mossman, a member of the Hawaii Ocean Safety Team (HOST), which has offered a friendly amendment to the bill, believes it shouldn't be approved as written.

HOST's recreational vessel safety requirements committee, with input from the Coast Guard, the state Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, the state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, and the Honolulu Fire Department, is strongly urging our lawmakers to include the option of equipping boats with VHF marine radios, rather than EPIRBs, as the bill presently reads.

HOST also recommends the bill should be applicable to all state-registered vessels and watercraft that operate more than one mile from shore, but "canoes, kayaks and surf/paddleboards, which are continually escorted by mechanically propelled vessels equipped with marine VHF radios or EPIRBs while operating more than one mile from shore are exempt from these requirements."

I'm sure there are many sailors who would add that smaller, inexpensive sailboats, like Lasers, should be included in this exemption category as well.

Unquestionably, our law-makers' intent with SB 216 was to insure all vessels venturing off shore in Hawai`i have the capability of broadcasting their position in an emergency. But unfortunately, as effective as EPIRBs are, they do have a couple of negative aspects.

For one, EPIRBs, for many, are prohibitively expensive - $600 to $1,000. Also, while they can transmit a vessel's location, like a fire alarm, they don't allow for a verification of the emergency.

In the same way the fire department must respond to every alarm, and occasionally discover it to be false on its arrival, the Coast Guard must respond to every EPIRB broadcast. Currently, the worldwide false alarm rate for EPIRBs is reported to be 90 percent.

Alternatively, VHF marine radios are comparatively inexpensive - some under $100 - and provide two-way communications with the Coast Guard, which monitors VHF channel 16, 24 hours a day.

By continuing to pass SB 216 along unchanged, it appears our lawmakers are doing so with the best of intentions.

But it is hard to understand why they have, so far, turned a deaf ear to advise from the representatives of the very people they are hoping to help - the potential victims and their potential rescuers.

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