Against all odds
William Byford examines his navel
I return to this subject today, after a degree of soul-searching and a discussion with the editor of the National Rust, and I need to come clean as to why.
Like most people, sometimes I hold views that might be controversial in certain company. But, being a wimp (or should that be ‘a normal human being’?) and not wishing to be unpopular, I am always wary of expressing them in circumstances where I might cause offence, or indeed might be humiliated in argument when challenged by those of an infinitely superior intellect.
My piece on the four missing Cheeki Rafiki British yachtsmen yesterday took a strong, not to say uncompromising, line on the practicalities of both ocean sailing and the likelihood of a successful outcome of any search to find them. Some might have thought it insensitive and/or unworthy in circumstances where families and loved ones back in Britain were continuing to hope against all the odds that they might still be rescued – summarised perhaps by the line ‘while there’s a chance, we must keep looking – how would we feel if we ever later found out that they’d been alive, but the world had prematurely given up the search?’
Yesterday the ‘Save Our Sailors’ campaign took off exponentially. An on-line petition attracted over 200,000 signatures, a group of family representatives met a minister at the Foreign Office, a pack of yachting and other luminaries queued up in support, and finally last night it was announced that – at the request of the British Government – the US coastguard was to resume its search.
Throughout all this I remained, and remain, a sceptic. As I made clear yesterday, nobody would be happier than me if the missing sailors were recovered safely – and thereby I was proved catastrophically wrong in my opinions – but that doesn’t mean I’ve changed them.
Given this situation, should I lie low and keep my mouth shut, in order to avoid unpopularity and/or run the risk of having ridicule (and worse) thrown in my direction for having being so dog-in-the-manger and pessimistic as, when and if the sailors are now rescued?
Or should I stand tall, tell it like I see it, and let the devil take the hindmost?
Having thought about it, for once in my life – and I’ve cleared this with the editor – I’m putting my head above the parapet and am prepared to take the consequences.
The latest developments in Britain leading to the resumption of the search (see above) spring from a laudable trait in the British people – even in the direst of circumstances, they resolutely cling onto hope of rescue and salvation. But, to me, it also has echoes of a less desirable aspect of the British psyche, viz. a herd instinct of sentimentality, sometimes characterised as ‘the Princess Diana effect’, in which rationality and practicality are left by the wayside as the public ride a giant wave of emotion on a metaphorical surf-board.
It might be deemed unworthy of me to express reservations about the superhuman efforts of the sailors’ families and loved ones to press for the chance of a rescue, but I suspect, even as they do so, they know that the chances of a happy outcome are slim. You might say in these circumstances that a slim chance is better than none and – in principle – even I couldn’t gainsay that.
Nevertheless, I did raise a quizzical eyebrow yesterday when I saw an interview with the father of one of the sailors on the evening television news, responding to the news of the US coastguard’s resumption of the search. He expressed his deep gratitude, but added that all concerned had ‘lost two days’ by the US coastguard’s original decision to abandon the search on Sunday. Technically that was indeed true, but what I found questionable about the sentiment was the implied criticism of ‘the authorities’ for not having pulled out all the stops straight away in the first place.
Let’s get a perspective on this. The US – and Canadian – coastguard and rescue services had done their usual sterling search job, as they would have done for anyone, when the disaster first struck the Cheeki Rafiki. They’d also acted within their standard guidelines, given the weather and ocean conditions, to abandon the search for the missing yachtsmen on Sunday.
What are we Brits saying? That if our own coastguard services had been involved, they’d have done better?
I don’t think so – these days they’re so resource-depleted that they’d probably have a problem rescuing a yacht in trouble further than ten miles out from the Isle of Wight.
What we’re dealing with here is the admirable and heartfelt determination of all those who know and/or are supporting the missing yachtsmen that, whilst there’s a chance, everything possible must be done. Nobody could argue with that. But, in my view, that thrust must be tempered by reality, not some ‘away with the fairies’ notion that worldwide search and rescue services are infinite and that somehow the costs involved are going to be met, if at all, by someone else.
We’re now in a position where the British Government has got involved – to do different would have been political, and possibly electoral, disaster – and the US coastguard has agreed to resume its search largely, in my view, because of the potential PR fall-out of not doing so.
We shall now await further developments. Hopefully the missing sailors will be found alive and safe, against all the odds. However, if they are not, it will be interesting to see how long the search might go on before general agreement is reached that there is no point in continuing it.
Postscript – a personal perspective:
As it happens, via an alert from a marine tracking website, I noticed this morning that the yacht my son captains – almost three times the size of the Cheeki Rafiki – left Poland overnight for a destination that is unknown to me because we haven’t spoken for over three weeks. Their current voyage is 15-months and counting in duration.