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Boating accident reporting is missing from Herald

By On

A few days ago, our community lost two young people to a tragic accident. A boating accident in Bellingham Bay. Yet we know almost nothing about them and the facts surrounding this accident. Our local daily newspaper has been obsessed with multiple articles about an accident 10 years ago when we lost three young people in a tragic accident. Has this struck anyone else as weird? It is almost as if the deaths of these two young men has interfered with the Herald’s planned over the top historical look back at something that is no longer news.

This is not to demean the tragedy of ten years ago. But just as that event caused us to change how we look at gas pipelines under our homes and schools and parks, so should last week’s boating accident cause us to learn all we can and see if we as a community can prevent future accidents. Besides, the Herald is printing a lot of stuff that is just not fact. Sam Taylor tells us that ten years ago the technology was not up to finding pipeline weak spots because “smart pigs” were not available then but are now. Sorry Sam, but dead wrong there. Smart pigs were in use and had been run through that pipe more than once before the explosion and the knowledge of the weak spot in the park had been ignored. Mistakes like that lead one to wonder how many more made up historical facts are in the many many articles.

Lets review the real news emptiness of just 5 days ago. We don’t know the ages of the ones who died. We know almost nothing of their families nor of their lives. We do not know the names of the four girls or women who swam to safety. Nor their ages. Nor whether the two guys could swim nor why they stayed with the boat instead of swimming with the women to shore. I heard one swam to shore with a woman and swam back to the boat. Maybe false.

My heart goes out to the parents. We as a community - through our daily newspaper - should be expressing our concern for this accident and taking this accident seriously. Yet today and yesterday the Herald had not a word about this accident. It happened last Thursday night - just five days ago. What have the friends of these victims to say about them? The Herald is too busy telling us what the friends of the victims from ten years ago think. That is history. This boating accident is news.

Why did the Coast Guard call off the search so quickly - way too quickly - at 3 pm the same day? What was the search area? The tide was in a big ebb from the time of the accident and might have swept two guys who were dog paddling for their lives far to the south - not north as the wind was blowing. Did other searchers also quit then? Why did it take till 4 am to rescue the girl on a cliff? There is probably a good reason - but the reporting of that is of value to us in this community.

A relative of mine - a young lady - was out with the two guys sailing the night before. Rather a terrifying bit of news to learn. It appears the boat was not fully equipped for safety - especially for a night sail. How much sailing experience and instruction did the two guys - Donnkie and Gunther - have? Let us not forget two other boating deaths within the past year or so that could have possibly been avoided.

Another personal note. I almost lost my son earlier this spring in a boating accident off San Francisco. I will post his account of that accident later this summer - when I can deal with the emotion of doing that. I taught him safety and he had instruction from members of the Bellingham Yacht Club. His training helped him to survive - along with luck. Boating is deceptively safe - until things go wrong. Training and needed safety equipment are vital.

Our community has never taken boating safety seriously. This is not to criticize nor point a finger in any direction. Some individuals have tried to get programs going. Some public parks programs have done good work. The yacht clubs have had programs. But the fact remains - we as a community could do ten times - a hundred times - better. Again - no blame on past independent efforts. But this community is on a fantastic bay that invites kids out to enjoy all types boating. And we have lakes everywhere that they also enjoy. We learned from the gas pipeline disaster. Lets learn from this tragic accident. Lets look to a coordinated community boating safety program for young people. Let us remember these two young men in an appropriate manner. Just as we have remembered the three boys from ten years ago.

And to the editors of the Bellingham Herald - news cannot be planned weeks ahead of time in meetings. It happens most anytime and your responsibility to this community is to report it. Try doing that. Right now we can learn more from the blog created by the friends of Donkey and Gunther than we can from the Herald. The Herald should be ashamed.

About John Servais

Posting Citizen Journalist • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

John Watts

Jun 10, 2009

A few points:

http://bellinghamstertalk.blogspot.com/search/label/NEWS will take you to 2 blogs I wrote on the general topic of /news’

The news coverage provided did seem sketchy and incomplete, perhaps due to consideration of relatives, as well as absence of additional facts - which appear to still be missing.

A thought: if the sailboat in question was only 18-feet long, probably overloaded with 6 passengers, all without PFDs, and was out late at night without other boats around to help, disaster seems to have been being courted, in the name of fun. Unfortunately, the sudden high winds that unexpectedly gusted that night probably actually caused -or at least aided- this disaster.

As a kayaker with some safety training, I know that just a few minutes in near 50-degree water will cause hypothermia which pretty often incapacitates even the strongest people. Unless near shore, with adequate gear, or traveling with others who can help, being in cold water can always be dangerous, and sometimes even fatal.

For comparison, the length of my double kayak is 22 feet; the single kayak is 17 feet, and neither has sails that can cause tipping in wind conditions.

I am deeply sorry for this latest local disaster, and grieve for those lost and their loved ones.
But, like most disasters, it seems this one could have easily been avoided.

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Tip Johnson

Jun 10, 2009

The Herald reporting recently resembles a theater of the macabre. One wonders if they have decided to replace reporting current events with boilerplate for rehashing anniversaries of various remembrances.  Perhaps they are aiming at making the such dates into community events to boost their advertising.

Respectfully remembering such tragedies is fine and proper, but amidst the blizzard of stories I have not seen much critical examination of the causes or hard analysis of whether we have actually made any significant progress toward a safer community.

This same complacency seems to also pertain to the recent boating accident. I find it extraordinarily negligent that the Herald has had nothing on the massive search that the victims families and friends have had to undertake without proper training, logistic support or resources.

Why did the Coast Guard call off the search days sooner than most would quit looking for a lost dog? By suspending the search, they tied the hands of Whatcom County Search and Rescue, who would otherwise have been eager to help. Where did they search? The Coast Guard has access to the world’s best current modeling.  Was it employed to guide their search? Amateur searchers are following the signs of wind driven debris from the vessel to the north shore of the Bay when in all likelihood the boys drifted southwest with the tide into Samish Bay.  Only a careful compilation of tide, current and wind data could reasonably narrow the search.  Meanwhile, scores of friends and family are desperately trying to inspect every foot of a very large, difficult and dangerous coastline.  Let’s pray that no one compounds the tragedy by slipping off some crumbling precipice in the attempt.

Every year, more folks are hurt or killed in boating accidents than in all other sports combined. It’s not more dangerous than football or soccer.  It just that more people do it without adequate safety training. That was clearly a factor in this accident.  Gunther was a competent sailor, but he should have had everyone in a life jacket for that wind.  Even without Gunther, everyone on the boat should have had enough exposure to water safety training to know that they should wear flotation.

This is particularly poignant for me.  In 1981, I started lobbying the Port of Bellingham for a community facility that could provide such exposure to safety training and boating skills.  It’s a no-brainer. We have so much water around here, and so many accidents. But for four years I got nowhere. Why? Ironically, because one commissioner’s son had drowned in the bay after his small sailboat capsized!

Another excuse was that they “had plans” eventually for such a facility in the new basin at Squalicum Harbor.  Unfortunately the proposal was only to help their federal grant application score well.  Once the money was received, the plans were dropped - along with the fisherman’s market wharf and the do-it-yourself boatyard. Eventually the Port told me they were in the business of business, not interested in community organizations, and not to come back wasting their time without a business plan. I hadn’t planned to start a boatyard but in 1985, lacking other options, I did.

24 years later, Fairhaven Boatworks has finally transformed into the Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center, where such skills and knowledge can be dispensed.  But it is no understatement to say that the survival of that facility was only by dint of sheer perseverance and obstinate refusal to succumb to the disadvantages heaped upon its operation.

It seems like times are gradually changing in Bellingham and at the Port but, just as with the pipeline tragedy, Our community won’t make real progress until we quit glossing over the problems, get critical and seriously dig in to fix them.

By the way, two Port Commission seats are up for election this August, both with two competent challengers.  Ask candidates for their position on boating safety and community facilities. Will the Port help fund boating safety programs? Many Ports offer fine facilities for this purpose for a dollar a year. Ours struggling postage stamp pays the highest rate of any water-dependent use on Port property.  Let’s make sure and train our children properly before any more of them are lost.

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