Accidents involving miniboats, which require no license or qualification to operate in Japan, are on the rise.
According to the 4th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, which covers Aichi and Mie prefectures, there were eight cases in 2014, up from two the year before and the most ever reported in the region.
The total number of miniboat accidents in the country also reached an all-time high, with 58 last year.
Most were blamed on the operators’ lack of seamanship, boating knowledge and awareness of dangers at sea.
Last November, the Coast Guard received an SOS signal off the coast of Kihoku, Mie Prefecture, from a 30-year-old man who had been out fishing.
He reported that he was adrift because his engine had stopped, prompting a patrol boat to be sent to help him.
Ten days later, they received another distress signal from the same area. It turned out to be the same man with the same problem.
According to the 4th Coast Guard Headquarters, the cause of the engine failure was exactly the same in both cases. The owner had made the elementary mistake of putting the throttle to full position immediately when starting the boat, flooding the engine.
“We explained the cause the first time around and warned him not to do it again, (but) he does not seem to realize that he is the captain of the boat,” a Coast Guardsman said.
“Some people don’t even know that they are supposed to drive on the right-hand side at sea,” the officer added.
Miniboats refer to boats that are less than 3 meters in length with engines providing up to 2 horsepower.
The increase in accidents is partly attributable to recent relaxations in regulations that now make it easier to own a boat, and weak materials used to construct small vessels.
The Law on Ships’ Officers and Boats’ Operators was revised in 2003 due to general improvements in boat capabilities. As a result, anyone can operate a miniboat without a license or prior inspection.
There are no definite data on the total number of miniboat owners as they are not required to register their vessels, but the Japan Marine Industry Association, a group consisting of boat manufacturing companies, estimates that the number has increased from a few thousand to somewhere around 45,000 to 48,000 in the last decade.
Under the revised law, even a child can operate a miniboat. There is also no defined area of ocean operations.
“Miniboats are unstable and can’t withstand strong wind or waves. In fact, such boats may overturn just by someone standing up in them,” said a representative from the Coast Guard said.
The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has acknowledged the danger and in 2011 produced safety pamphlets and DVDs. The same content is published online, which can be found searching for the keywords “miniboat” and “safety” in Japanese.
These measures have not improved the situation.
“We revised the law because we felt that we can guarantee the safety of the users,” said an official from the maritime division of the ministry. “We need to work harder to inform the public of the safety and rules at sea so that everybody can enjoy marine leisure activities to the fullest.”
Most miniboats are made of plastic or rubber, with an outboard motor attached. Mostly used for fishing, the starting price is usually around ¥100,000.
Due to the lightweight materials, they can be transported by car.
In April 2011, a man drowned off the coast of Setouchi, Okayama Prefecture, after falling into the sea without a life jacket.
A man in his 50s was fishing near Chita, Aichi Prefecture, when the wind and tide dragged his boat onto a bed of seaweed. The boat overturned when he stood up in an attempt to untangle the boat’s propeller.
A man in his 20s invited three friends on a boat trip near Chita. The engine wasn’t strong enough to move the heavily loaded boat and it quit 10 minutes after leaving shore.
The owner tried to restart the motor but lost a key component overboard and thus was unable to do so.
In another case, a man in his 40s was fishing near Chubu International Airport in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, when his boat was capsized by a high wave. He rowed back to land by pulling apart a cooler box and using it as an oar.
This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Feb. 14.
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