By DIANE PHILLIPS
There is a lot that many of you out there know about me. I’m the other side of middle age and stuck with too much energy for my own good. I say what’s on my mind. I have had a lifelong love affair with words and secretly confess that I spend ridiculous amounts of time thinking stupid thoughts like which is a better example of a double-middle-consonant verb that sounds like what it means, hobble or cobble. When you say the word hobble you immediately think of someone bent over, struggling for the next step. But when you say cobble as in cobbling a… anyway, you get the picture.
You have no idea how much time I have wasted on thoughts like that. You may also know I am 100 percent committed to my clever husband, my two fabulous grown daughters, granddaughters, the environment, sea turtles, truth in reporting and more and not necessarily in that order, but pretty close.
Here’s what you don’t know. I am a sailor and it was sailing that brought me to The Bahamas 36 years ago. So whenever I see or hear a story about an arrest or a rescue at sea or the grounding of a vessel, I pay attention, even closer attention than to double-middle-consonant words and their relative value.
It was pretty hard not to pay attention to the grounding issue this week when a clip went viral of the Prime Minister greeting RBDF Commander Tellis Bethel saying, “Commodore, I hear y’all still mashing up our boats hey? Your fellas need to know how to navigate.” The comment was supposed to have been a private exchange as the prime minister made his way into the first of three workshops on the pending Freedom of Information Act. But the mishap greeting apparently slipped through the fingers of the communications team that accompanies the PM and ended up on a Facebook page.
It doesn’t take much for something to go viral – a cute baby feeding a dog from its own bottle will do it or better yet, a dog feeding a baby. We, the public, are eager to enjoy whatever strikes us as surprising, unlikely, unexpected and unpredictable so long as it is accompanied by an image.
The problem with the salacious enjoyment of a prime minister chiding someone in a high place is the public - which does not understand the respect we believe he and most everyone in The Bahamas has for Commander Tellis Bethel - believes whoever the PM chides must deserve it. Yes, three of the nine Damen-built ships have experienced groundings resulting in damage to their props in a two-year period, the most recent incident just last Sunday as the HMBS Rolly Gray pulled out of the Coral Harbour Base. Yes, the accidents cost the RBDF money in repairs, though most was covered by insurance and the overall non-reimbursable expenditure has been surprisingly low.
Ships were also out of commission while repairs were being made. Two captains have been reassigned. I am not about to defend a captain who veered too far one way or another. I just want to look at these incidents in a fuller light.
We all know the sad reality that it is a whole lot easier to criticise than to commend. Why do we rush to point a finger instead of shaking a hand and saying thanks for all you do? So without saying “Great job, you ran aground,” which would be ridiculous, I just want you to read on and form your own opinion. I’ve never been a fly on the wall of a Defence Force vessel but I can’t imagine it being much fun. I toured the new vessels when they arrived and even though they were an improvement because they were clean, they were about as far a cry as you could get from luxury.
Tonight, when you and I go to sleep and lay our heads down on a nice clean pillow in a nice soft bed, Defence Force vessels and marines will be at sea. Where we have upholstery, they have aluminium or steel. Where we have physical comfort, they have the comfort of knowing they will be home one day soon. Where we are counting on them traversing thousands of miles back and forth across the 100,000 square miles of open ocean, we complain about traffic driving down the road.
Many of those marines have families at home but they won’t be with them tonight or waking up with them in the morning. I’ve sailed at night. It is only glamourous for the first hour or two and then it is cold and, depending on the weather, rough or bone-chilling or lonely or scary or all of the above. Tomorrow morning, while we are waking up to the smell of bacon or slicing up fresh fruit, they are scrambling into gear that is a bit damp, sharing a bathroom (called a head), sitting cramped in a small dinette off the galley (kitchen) before starting their day and night patrols.
For everyone who loves the sea, there are multiple forces, the unpredictable weather conditions, the raw beauty, the constant change. It is a life of highs and lows few will ever experience and it comes with a price.
When I sailed, I got to swim during the day, fix a cocktail in the early evening, read a book with a steaming cup of coffee on deck in the early morning, climb into a dinghy and jig for jack with hubby and child as the sun rose and if we were lucky, we’d see a flock of birds hovering, make it to the school of jacks before they scooted. We’d bring what we caught back to the boat and grill them up with a little pepper and lime for breakfast. Our daughter had a little pink fishing rod and, boy, she could catch jack in the morning with that little rod by the time she was five. That was our kind of sailing.
The marines aren’t looking for jack or marlin or anything else that to us was the joy of being out on a boat at sea day and night. According to the report issued yesterday by Commander Tellis Bethel, of the three incidents of grounding, one was not the fault of the captain. Two captains have been reassigned. A new simulator to be used for training is on order. But since the vessels have been deployed with the Sandy Bottom Project the patrols are far greater than ever because they no longer have to come out of the Coral Harbour base and take up to a day to reach where an incident might have occurred.
Stepped-up patrols have netted far greater results in Bahamian security. Those same nine vessels have caught and arrested seven foreign boats for poaching, retrieved more than 100,000 pounds of fisheries products, apprehended almost 2,000 migrants, interdicted $1.5m worth of narcotics, engaged in extensive disaster relief operations at home and abroad – including being the sole source of water and electricity for entire islands after Hurricane Joaquin, Matthew and Irma. They also assisted in the rescue of nearly 100 lives at sea without loss of life.
If you have never tried to rescue anyone, especially in rough waters and storm conditions, it can be a pretty dangerous, dramatic and traumatic event. There may be 20 to 30 feet or more height difference between someone in the water and the deck of the rescue vessel or pounding waves can keep boats from being able to come side by side. Every manoeuver has to be carefully calculated and executed with prayer, survival skills and a dose of luck.
Commander Bethel calls the sea “unforgiving”. Let me share how unforgiving it can be. Imagine being on top of a wave, at the very crest, and you are in a small sailboat with virtually no steerage because the wind is right at the bow coming at you with full strength. You cannot manoeuver, the small engine ineffective. You are at the mercy of nature as the boat lifts off the crest and plummets down a valley. You look up and all you see is a wall of water, there is no sky, no horizon and you ride that wave up to the crest again, and again you slide down a wave as high as a four-storey building. You hold your breath, pray, make deals with God, close your eyes. And it happens again and again and then suddenly it is all over, the storm has passed, the sea quiets down and you can breathe.
Sailing takes courage, grit, patience, endurance. It takes a certain spirit and a special stamina so please, do not be so hard on the marines nor on Commander Bethel who has sailed every inch of these waters. His is a job that few in the world could handle, overseeing a fleet and troops who are tasked with patrolling waters that make up 90 percent of a country, waters geographically ideally suited for smuggling just about any kind of material or human contraband from its original destination to the greatest and hungriest market in the hemisphere, the US.
We ask so much of the Defence Force, yet we treat the operation as an outside child. Parts of the Defence Force base look like they should be condemned. The men and women who are always working out, training, marching, cleaning equipment when they are not onboard ships are the quiet unsung, largely out of sight members of our national security team. We see the police everywhere. When their cars are in accidents, and many are, do we chide their Commissioner? We trust they are doing their best to protect us.
Maybe the PM’s accidental chiding will help turn the tide reminding all of us to stop for a moment and give credit where it’s due. We do not need to bless mistakes. That would be useless. But we do need to see them in the light of a larger picture of how important the RBDF is to our nation and remembering to say thanks for everything they do even if they have to cobble together resources and their boats have to hobble back to port.
And while we are at it, can we please move ahead with naming the waters of The Bahamas, still the only significant unnamed body of water in the world, the Lucayan Sea? Now, that would go viral.