The fatal shipwreck opposite the harbour of Rimini, Italy, last April 8th, in which 4 people lost their lives, brings into the foreground a matter which is often underestimated, namely the responsibilities of a skipper. Of course, the task of elucidating the real causes and possible responsibilities of this tragedy will fall to investigators.
What is certain is that the skipper, or better, the captain of a boat takes an enormous responsibility every time he sails off and starts sailing with his crew, even when the latter is made up of few relatives and friends. His responsibility is always moral but it can sometimes become even civil and penal.
This level of awareness, especially among those for whom sailing is not a job, is not always present. If, on one hand, it is true that we can’t let the weight of this responsibility crush ourselves, ruin our boat holiday and stress our guests, on the other hand, it’s equally true that we mustn’t underestimate the effects of our choices.
It’s up to us, as boating license holders and captains of the boat, to decide, for example, whether to sail off under bad weather conditions or not.
In itself, this decision doesn’t involve any kind of infraction. It’s not an overtaking in an area where this manoeuvre is not allowed, which represents a punishable situation regardless whether it provokes an accident or not. If we have decided that sea, boat and crew conditions are good enough to go out to sea even if the sea state is 8, no one can “give us a ticket”. In case of accident, however, we will be criminally responsible for this choice.
Not only because it’s physically impossible to stay at the wheel nonstop but also because a 1992 Ministerial Circular of the Italian Civil Code clearly establishes that driving a boat doesn’t consist “in steering physically a boat… but it means to be responsible for the command and supervision of all the operations required for sailing which cannot be delegated to third parties”.
In short, in case of accident, even if the helmsman is a relative or a friend, the responsible for the event is always the captain of the boat. The law is clear and article 2054 of the Italian Civil Code establishes that ” the driver of a vehicle (according to the law, the boat, too, is a “vehicle”) equipped with no rails is obliged to refund the damage caused to people or things… if he doesn’t prove that he did everything he could to avoid the damage itself“.
Furthermore, article 414 of the Navigation Code establishes that, when we sail with some friends on board, the responsibility of the captain is applied only when he acted in negligent or imprudent manner.
However, in 2013, a verdict of the third section of the Itailian Court of Cassation established that “There is therefore no reason to assign, in recreational boating, to article 2054 of the Italian Civil Code, a different context of implementation than that one covered by road traffic”.
So, the negligent skipper pays for damages and is criminally responsible for eventual accidental personal injuries and negligent homicide.
Jurisprudence offers a multitude of examples of condemnations of skippers who have been responsible for irresponsible misconduct and, vice versa, of absolutions, even in very serious cases, because the accident and, sometimes, even the death of a crew member have been proven to be accidental and the captain did everything he could to sail safely.
All rules and codes apart, there is always the moral issue. As already mentioned, when we go out to sea with other people, even in the case of a short cruise, we are always responsible not only for the well-being of these people but, above all, for their safety. In addition to being aware of our competence, we must scrupulously check that everything is orderly on board, that equipment is efficient and reachable, that life-saving equipment (lifejackets, life raft and belts) are handy and useable in few seconds and that weather conditions are good and safe according to our course, boat and passengers. We have to inform our guests about the use of the on-board equipment and radio, without getting them warned or nervous.
And we mustn’t be afraid to say not and be unpleasant. Many skippers maybe nicer than us have made some mistakes that have often provoked no accidents but that, sometimes, have unfortunately resulted into fatal events.
Once everything is done scrupulously and seriously, we can enjoy our sailing experience and have fun with our friends.