The real menace in our waters

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 August, 2006, 12:00am

About this time of year, Hong Kong is visited by our regular commuting shark. The maneater cruises into our waters and lurks about Clearwater Bay, grabbing unwary swimmers. A couple of weeks later, he meanders away.

But sharks these days are the least of the worries confronting swimmers in the area, warns marine expert Charlie Frew. He reckons people who swim outside the safety borders of shark-netted beaches are more likely to be run down by a speeding boat than taken by a great white. 'It's a tragedy no longer waiting to happen,' he warns, pointing to two recent fatalities in the area. In both cases, swimmers were killed when struck by speedboats.

Mr Frew is right. The dangerous antics of speedboat drivers are frightening. Some of the lunatic operators are macho hoodlums who delight in hurling their boats at high speed through pleasure craft anchored off popular beaches. Or their vessels scream at high speed close to shore, showing off to crowds on the beaches.

Meanwhile, the marine police seem to take little notice and even less action. Mr Frew is also an active member of the Sai Kung Association, which tries to make the area a pleasant place to visit. A major threat to this is speedboats that make it dangerous to venture into the water.

He calls for police to take stricter action against wayward speedboat drivers. Mr Frew points to a recent incident in which three boats towing wakeboarders sped up the estuary of Kau Lung Hang stream near Tai Po.

This has been described by academic environmentalist Gordon Maxwell as 'Hong Kong's dream stream' because of the beauty of the highly sensitive mangroves and mud flats. Mr Frew said: 'The wakes of fast boats have an enormously destructive impact on natural communities like this bay.' In addition to being a direct threat to any children paddling in the stream, speeding boats destroy the natural habitat of crabs, wading birds and fish.

Mr Frew called marine police. They arrived, managed to stop all three vessels and catch one - whose skipper tried to escape - and issued only verbal warnings. 'What does it take to have meaningful action taken by police?' asks Mr Frew. 'How many verbal warnings are given before a fine is imposed or some more significant action taken?'

That's a question echoed by many others who see obvious dangers in speeding boats placing swimmers in direct jeopardy. But many people don't bother to call the police because they know the response is likely to be slow and that action will be weak and ineffective. Meanwhile, people die.

One answer is to make it far tougher to get a boating licence. At present, anyone can sit the theory-only exam and, the next day, legally take off for a wild ride in a powerful boat. They need never before have steered a vessel.

Another answer is to photograph all offenders. The boats are all numbered. If one is used dangerously, it should be confiscated - no matter if the owner professes not to know who was using it. Offenders need to know there is the certainty of heavy fines, of boat licences being suspended and that jail awaits those who use vessels at excessive speeds in a dangerous manner.

If a hungry white pointer kept eating swimmers, the public would demand government action. What's needed urgently is protection against madmen driving powerful boats.

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories