When the Cesca, a 16 meter crabber sank off North Wales coast last month, the story made national headlines.
The boat took on water, suffered engine failure and sank. Skipper, Jake Bowman-Davies kept a cool head; he initiated the correct emergency procedure, put out a distress call and later made the agonising decision to abandon ship, successfully shepherding his crew into the life raft.
What made the story a sensation wasn’t the skipper’s evident bravery, resourcefulness and sang froid, it was his age. Jake Bowman-Davies is just sixteen years old, an age at which many teenagers can barely organise their own sea fishing tackle, let alone take responsibility for a fishing boat and its crew. It begs the question that, courageous and level headed though the young skipper most certainly is, should he have been in charge of a commercial fishing vessel in the first place?
As it stands, there is no legal requirement for skippers of commercial fishing craft under 16.5 metres to hold a skipper’s ticket, and there is no legal minimum age to be a small boat skipper. To be employed on any fishing boat, all you need is to have completed the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) statutory safety training in sea survival, first aid, fire fighting and health and safety, for which there is currently no minimum age limit.
Some newspapers claim that 16 year old skipper, Jake Bowman-Davies is the country’s youngest qualified skipper. But they are wrong. In fact, Jake does not hold a skipper’s ticket, a fact that Simon Potten, head of safety and training at Seafish is keen to point out: “He is not eligible for a Seafish under 16.5m Skipper’s Certificate until he can evidence a minimum two years’ experience as a full-time commercial fisherman – since leaving school. This effectively rules out anyone under 18 years of age [from holding the Skipper’s ticket].”
We should point out that Jake Bowman-Davies has completed all the required training for the Certificate. Clearly what is at issue is not the level of competence that the young skipper displayed under pressure, but whether he should have been put in that position at all.
Regardless of Jake Bowman-Davies’ obvious abilities, he is still a child. Pressure groups campaigning for an increase to the minimum age requirement for joining the armed forces point to evidence that suggests personnel recruited at 16 are more likely to suffer from mental health problems like post traumatic stress disorder than those who enlist at 18 years of age.
Young people subjected to extreme stress are more likely to have difficulty processing and coming to terms with events. Experiencing a sinking, or serious injury at sea is nothing if not traumatic. We are not suggesting that this particular skipper is struggling, but we are saying putting young people in a position of leadership at 16 could be too early to assume such a hefty responsibility.
The case for?
Age is no bar to experience, and the simple fact is that fishermen’s sons are often making regular trips to sea with their fathers well before their voices have broken. A sixteen year old skipper may not be old enough to vote, but he or she might already have several years of sea time under their belt.
And just because someone is young doesn’t mean they’re not capable, as the calm and collected, as Jake Bowman-Davies proves. And of course being older is no guarantee someone will do the right thing in a life and death scenario.
Perhaps what is most important is not age, but training. As Seafish’s Simon Potten says: “we actively encourage fishermen of any age to undertake the training courses required for a Skipper’s Certificate as there is no age limit. The more safety training fishermen get the better.”