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Fishing For Relevance

Denis Solomon • 949 words

The French education system has always been regarded as excellent. On the British one, the jury is out. But however well or ill fitted a metropolitan education system is for its own citizens, colonial copies of it always turn out to be inadequate.

Our UNESCO-modified British system has produced, over the years, a considerable increase in illiteracy and functional illiteracy. Pupils in the French Overseas Departments, with the same education as metropolitan France, have a much lower success rate.

There must be many reasons for this, chief among which is that the first language of the children when they go to school is not French, but Creole. But, there as here, even when local specificities are recognised, the attempts to overcome them are often little better adapted to local needs. There is the story that French children are taught in history lessons that “Nos ancêtres étaient des Gaulois” (our ancestors were Gauls). In a trial programme for use of Creole in instruction, Martinican children were told that “zannsèt-nou te Golwa”.

That story is probably apocryphal. But I have personal experience of a situation in Guadeloupe which admirably illustrates the extent to which programmes of education and training can exhibit (like many other areas of life) the effect of a completely impractical adaptation of methodology to local needs.

For a time there was a fishing school in Guadeloupe which sought to make the industry more productive by teaching fishermen the basics of coastal navigation, fishing techniques, engine and boat maintenance. A friend of mine, a French yachtsman with several ocean voyages to his credit, wanted to go into the fishing business, and was told that he would have a better chance of getting registered as a fisherman if he took the examination of the course. The first question in the navigation section was as follows:

A fisherman wishes to leave Antigua at 0900 hours and arrive at Kahouanne at 2100 hours. There is a six-knot current setting westerly. Plot his course and speed from a point on the 200-metre line of soundings.

My friend’s answer was something like this:

  1. A navigator cannot select his speed on the basis of the time he wishes to take for a particular voyage. No boat would have a sufficient range of speeds to make this feasible, apart from questions of fuel consumption. What the navigator does is to take the cruising speed of his boat as given, and calculate the length of time the voyage will take on the basis of speed, tide, current and other factors. He then selects a departure time to give him the arrival time he wants.

  2. No navigator in his right mind would attempt a landfall at Kahouanne after dark, since it is surrounded by reefs and rocks and there are no lights or other navigational aids.

  3. There are only two places in the world where currents regularly reach six knots: the strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, and the Bay of Fundy. In both cases the speed is caused by tidal factors added to the normal currents, and the phenomenon is therefore intermittent.

  4. Even assuming a six-knot current setting westerly in the Caribbean, no type of fishing vessel known here could achieve the speed that would make such a voyage possible without a ludicrous compensation for the current, and few others would have the fuel capacity even if they had the speed. If they did have the speed, the question is ridiculous, for they would complete the journey in less than 12 hours.

  5. Even assuming that the vessel would be capable of the required speed, the voyage would be highly inadvisable for the following reasons:

    1. There is no shore station at any point along the route to which the vessel could signal in case of distress.

    2. Even if there were such a shore station, and the vessel at the time of breakdown were ten miles away from it, the vessel would immediately begin drifting westward at six knots, not counting the effect of the wind. A rescue vessel setting out instantly on receipt of the signal would therefore have difficulty in finding the fishing boat, and if it did, would catch up with it at least sixteen miles from shore. If would then have to tow the fishing boat at a very unlikely speed to return to base at all.

  6. There is no 200-metre line of soundings on any chart.

Disregarding 1-6 above, the course and speed that would correctly answer the question (my friend gave them) would be completely impossible, for the reason that with such a course to steer the course made good would pass through the island of Desirade if the current held at six knots, and if the current should slacken, would put the vessel ashore somewhere on the north-eastern tip of Guadeloupe. The only feasible solution (again disregarding factors 1-6 above) would be to plot at least two courses, one to the north-eastern tip of Guadeloupe and one from there to Kahouanne. This would have the added advantage that the fisherman would have the current in his favour during the second half of the voyage.

The examiners, who had probably never been to sea, had obviously taken a question from some manual and altered it to make it more “relevant”.

Of the twelve candidates, my friend was the only one to fail the examination. The instruction at the school was later found to be ineffective, and the school was closed. As a substitute project, thirty Guadeloupe fishermen were sent to France to learn fishing. Twenty-nine quickly married Frenchwomen and stayed in France. Only one returned to enhance the productivity of the Guadeloupean fishing industry.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top