20 March 2019

Most seasoned boaters know the rules and are well prepared to go out on the water. However, there are still some who may not think twice about jumping on a boat, completely oblivious of any rules. This is when things can go badly wrong.

‘Fun police’ may be a comical stereotype and being a ‘rule follower’ may generate some amusing banter out on the water; but, the boating community is quickly learning that the consequences of breaking, or not even knowing water safety rules, could be the difference between life and death.

Many individuals are working hard to ensure people are educated on our local maritime rules, which are not there to ruin your day on the water; but rather to ensure your next trip is not your last.

Breaking the rules (defined in the Maritime Transport Act and Bay of Plenty Navigation Safety Bylaw) puts you and others at risk. Of these rules, four routinely create issues.  These are; the absence of properly fitted lifejackets, no forms of communication to call for help, speeding and failing to keep clear of ships in the harbour.

In New Zealand an average of 19 to 20 recreational boaters die on the water each year, with a sudden spike in fatal accidents in November and December. This is believed to be due to boaters getting back on the water only to discover, too late, something is wrong. When your life is at risk it is worth being prepared, checking your boat and gear, and knowing the rules.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council Harbourmaster Peter Buell reported that in 2017 nine people died in Bay of Plenty waters.  Most could have been prevented if a proper fitting lifejacket had been worn.

'Wearing a lifejacket is the single most important thing you can do to avoid drowning if you unexpectedly end up in the water,' said Buell.  

'When you’re on the water, the two things that save the most lives are, without a doubt, wearing your lifejacket and having a means to call for help.'

While lifejackets have saved countless lives; if you can’t be heard, you can’t be helped and hypothermia then becomes a real risk. Having a marine radio is your best chance and it is wise to also carry a distress beacon.   

Only one-in-four people take a marine VHF radio out boating.  In 59% of fatal boating accidents inadequate communications were on board (inadequate forms of communication cannot be said to have caused the deaths but it's an added risk that makes rescue harder). If you’re boating on the coast, treat yourself to a VHF radio. Then, while you’re at, sign up for Coastguard Boating Education’s online VHF course – it’s simple and will help you to get the most out of your VHF radio.

With lifesaving gear on board you may also want to consider your speed. The five knot rule is in place within 200 metres of shore and divers, and within 50 metres of swimmers and other boats. Speeding in these busy areas can and has injured children, swimmers, divers and people in small craft.

Speed may be all fun and games…until a swimmer pops up too late to get out of the way. Then, if anything could be more devastating; there’s the issue of boaters getting way too close to ships in the channel. It is guaranteed - if you’re in a recreational boat and come head to head with a ship, you’re NOT going to come out on top!

Events of this nature have been a particular concern in the Tauranga Harbour this season, with one being a standout example. A video of an incident, time-stamped to the evening of December 14, was a confronting reminder of how quickly things can go wrong. A cruise ship bears down on an incapacitated inflatable, narrowly missing it to pass alongside. The frighteningly close call with a 122,000 tonne cruise ship was a powerful visual warning for boaters, reiterating the rule to ‘keep clear 50 metres to each side of a ship and 500 metres ahead’.

To make matters worse, not only had the small inflatable dingy in the video been in the wrong place at the wrong time, they had also run out of fuel and lost an oar.  It is a skippers responsibility to take enough and spare fuel, as well as alternative power – a spare outboard motor or oars.  The boat had no lifejackets on board and Coastguard was unable to respond to the vessel in strife, as they had no means to call for help on board.

The reports of several close calls have again put maritime safety issues in the spotlight this season. It is of primary importance that the Safety Boating Code and the maritime rules become second nature to every single boater when they prepare to head out on the water.

Rules and tips for boating near ships in Tauranga

  • Boats must keep clear of big ships.
  • Minimum side clearance is 50 metres.
  • Minimum clearance in front of a ship is 500 metres.
  • If fishing in the shipping channel, move before ships come through.
  • Check the shipping schedule on the Port of Tauranga website and note when ship movements are due.
  • If you have to move, give yourself plenty of time in case of equipment failure.
  • Monitor marine radio channel one for 15 minute Coastguard warnings of shipping movements.
  • Check your equipment before setting out and have a back-up form of propulsion, such as oars.
  • Instead of anchoring in the channel, anchor just outside of it and cast in.