Boating BitsBoats

Boat safety at sea

AS serious fishos, many of us are boat owners. I’ve been a boatie all my life and spent a lot of time on the water from small estuaries and creeks to 40 miles offshore. My first boating experience was in an old De Haviland car topper that my father had when I was a young bloke. That was back in the 60’s when there were very few rules and no one to check or enforce them. Life jackets, flares and safety equipment were optional, drinking alcohol was, at times, mandatory and most boat owners probably never even had a boat license. The figures show that boating fatalities back in the ’50s to ’70s were common so the rules changed and some regulation was enforced.

Back then I was a young bloke who never took a lot of care. We’d go out fishing in a 12 foot tinnie without the required safety gear and even head offshore in a 4.5 centre console without checking the weather or logging on with Marine Rescue. We got fined by Waterways for an unregistered boat, no license, no paddle and no lifejackets years ago. We also got caught out badly 10 miles out in a howling westerly and limped back home in a state of panic for 2 hours. Looking back, I can’t help but think about how lucky we were to survive a few incidents and also how stupid we were to put ourselves in some dangerous and life threatening situations.

When I semi-retired to Hervey Bay last year I decided I wanted to give something back by helping in a volunteer capacity. I signed up at the local Marine Rescue Organisation and did an eight week course on Elements of Shipboard Safety and Survival at Sea to become a qualified Crew Member. That was a big eye opener for someone who’d been a “boatie” all his life and thought he had a fair idea. After the first week I realised I knew a lot about boats but very little about marine safety and especially what to do in a situation that goes pear shaped. I see it all, working as a rescue crew member. People heading out in atrocious weather, flat batteries, running out of fuel, motors that won’t start, no radio or a radio that doesn’t work, no EPIRB, lack of maintenance, no anchor, groundings, collisions, disorientated and lost at night. I’ve seen the worry and fear on people’s faces when we arrive to help them. That fear and panic is usually a lot worse before they see us heading their way.

I’ve come to understand exactly why PFDs are required by law and why a VHF radio, flares, an EPIRB and a fire extinguisher is also required if you venture into open waters. When I first started fishing out of my own boats I considered NSW Waterways heading towards me for a safety gear and license check to be a pain in the neck. Now I check what they did most times before we go fishing because I’ve learned how important that safety gear is when something goes wrong. I’ve seen PFD’s, VHF radios and EPIRBS save boats and the lives of people just like you, who thought it would never happen to them and they knew all about boats.

Every boat owner should check their safety gear at least every few months. You are required by law to carry a life jacket for everyone on board. If your boat carries a maximum of five people then you need to have five operable life jackets. That includes smaller ones for any children. They need to be in date and checked yearly if they are inflatable PFD’s. PFD’s are probably the most important safety item on your boat because if you run aground, have a collision, have to abandon ship or fall overboard and don’t have one on, you could very easily drown. Statistics show that between 85 and 90 percent of boating related drownings involved people not wearing a life jacket. If you fish alone you should wear one whenever you are in the boat, along with a safety lanyard around your wrist for the motor kill switch when under power. As skipper it’s your responsibility to ensure that everyone on board knows where the PFD’s are and how to access them.

Next up is flares. Make sure they are in date and you have the correct ones required by law. Most people have never had to set a flare off but I can assure you, when you are in a bad situation and people are looking for you, they are vital. So is a V sheet.

Your EPIRB is a critical piece of safety equipment if you are stranded and need to be found and especially if your boat sinks and you have to get in the water. Make sure it is in date and secured somewhere within reach and easy access in an emergency. So is your VHF or 27 meg radio. Make sure it works and you know the radio channels to use if you have to call for assistance or MAYDAY. It’s not much use having to abandon ship and calling MAYDAY on a channel no one is listening to. If you have a VHF marine radio you are required by law to obtain a Certificate of Proficiency in using it.

A fire extinguisher is also required on boats that venture into open waters. Make sure everyone on board knows where it is and how to use it. The last thing you want is a small electrical or fuel line fire on board and no one knows where the extinguisher is or how to unclip it and operate it. A small fire can become a big one in seconds with fuel and oxygen so time is of the essence or you’ll be abandoning ship and looking for a lifejacket and the EPIRB.

At Marine Rescue we do weekly boat checks on every piece of equipment. There’s a list and every item is checked against it to make sure it’s in place, in date and operational. Our vessels are classed as 2C Commercial so those checks are mandatory and law. Recreational boats have no class or survey so you don’t have to do paperwork or safety checks. It’s up to the owner or skipper to make sure everything is on board, in date and works. I know of very few recreational boat owners who do that on a regular basis unless they are pulled up by Waterways or the Water Police.

It’s too easy to just forget about maintenance on boats until something breaks, stops working or falls off. Or worse still, until it’s needed in an emergency and not where it should be or broken and not working. As fishermen we’re more inclined to repair the sounder or rod holders than worry about safety equipment because we don’t think we will ever have to use it. Take my advice and spend an hour every month checking expiry dates, safety equipment, batteries, electrical connections, your radio signal, tool kit, fuel lines, bungs, bilge pumps and hatches, etc. Test your EPIRB every six months and make sure the contact details on the AMSA registration are correct. Ensure PFD’s, fire extinguisher and EPBIRB can be easily accessed in an emergency.

OK – that’s the easy bit of making sure you have the right safety gear and making sure it’s on the boat and working. Now we’re going to look at what to do when something goes wrong.

I’d bet that most people reading this have never had to jump in the water with a life jacket on, inflate a PFD, call MAYDAY on their radio, set off a flare or use a fire extinguisher to put a fire out. Our boating trips revolve around fishing. We take a lot of time getting tackle ready, rigging rods, checking the tides and weather and deciding where to go but we rarely think about how dangerous boating can be if something goes wrong. What can go wrong? Let’s look at a couple of scenarios that I have seen or know of.

Six mates are out on their 40 foot game boat trolling for marlin off Sydney. They’re having a great time in some sloppy conditions but no fish are raised so after a few hours most of them fall asleep on the bunks in the cabin or up front. They’d had a few beers the night before and not much sleep on the boat. The skipper is up on the fly bridge listening to music and checking Facebook. No one is watching the lures because the fish aren’t playing and the last thing they expect is for a lure to get eaten. Bruce wakes up feeling seasick and goes out the back for a spew. He loses his balance as a wave hits and he goes over the side. He looks up to see the boat motoring off and no one realises he’s in the water. He’s got no PFD or means of floatation and they can’t hear his desperate screams for help. How long can you tread water for in your clothes? How often does the skipper on a larger boat do a quick head count to make sure that Bruce is actually up in the front bunk sleeping and not missing?

Two fishermen decide to take their kids out fishing in the local dam. They don’t get a weather report and head of with three kids under 8 years of age in a 13 foot tinnie with a dodgy and very old outboard. They motor over to the other side and the motor gives up the ghost. No amount of pull starting or primer pumping is getting to breathe life into the old girl. No radio and no mobile phone service mean they can’t contact anyone and no oars to get back home. The wives had no idea where they were heading and no idea of when they’ll be home. A southerly buster blows up and they drop an anchor to stay in the one spot. Next thing waves are crashing over the front and the boat is getting swamped. No bailing bucket means they are sinking. There’re two adult sized life jackets on board so the blokes put them on and they all try to swim to shore. It’s only two hundred metres but they find out really quick how hard it is to swim in a life jacket and try and keep four small children without life jackets afloat at the same time. The alarm is raised after several hours by the women and by the time some other anglers find them two of the children have drowned and the rest are suffering severe hypothermia and are lucky to be alive.

Johnno’s been out for an afternoon reef fish off Coffs Harbour. It’s just on dark by the time he heads back in from 6 miles out in his 5 metre side console tinny. It’s choppy with a 15 knot southerly blowing and he’s getting pounded and wet during an uncomfortable 20 minute run back home. Out of nowhere the boat hits a big trough and he’s thrown out. With no one on the wheel, the boat turns to starboard and starts doing circles around him. He has no life jacket; the fuel tank is half full and no one knows his situation. His family report him missing at 8 o’clock that night after desperately calling his phone and finding his car and trailer at the boat ramp. They have no idea where he was going fishing. He’s found floating about 4 miles out the next morning by Water Police with the boat not far away and out of fuel. If he’d logged on with Marine Rescue, worn a PFD and used the motor kill switch tether he’d still be alive today.

Are you starting to notice a couple of common threads here? Lack of planning and maintenance on safety equipment. No common sense or awareness of how dangerous a situation can be and no life jackets. All of those people ended up in a very dangerous situation because they did something they shouldn’t have. That situation instantly turned deadly because they didn’t know what to do in an emergency and weren’t prepared.

There are a few basic rules as far as survival at sea goes. The first thing to do in any emergency situation is make sure everyone has a life jacket on. The worst scenario in most instances is ending up in the water. If you hit reef, have a collision, have a fire or start taking water you may end up having to abandon ship. Make sure you have a PFD on before you leave the vessel. If you have to leave the vessel take the EPIRB with you and tie it to your PFD. Have your flares and safety gear in a small waterproof grab bag and take that too. Take some fresh water if at all possible.

If you have time before abandoning the vessel, call MAYDAY on the radio and clearly state the location and number of persons on the boat. If you have time detail the situation. i.e. Taking water and abandoning ship. A mobile phone can also be used to call for help. If the local Marine Rescue or Coast Guard respond and say they are on the way you may not need to activate the EPIRB. If no one responds or knows of your situation and it is life threatening, activate your EPIRB straight away.

If the hull has positive flotation and can’t sink, stay with it and sit on it if need be. It will be much easier to spot from the air than single people scattered about. If the boat sinks all stay together. Don’t drift apart. A group of people is much easier to spot and find in a search and rescue situation. If the water is cold and hypothermia starts to take effect huddle together to keep each other warm. If possible keep your legs together and arms down by your side as this is where most body heat is lost from.

Stay calm and don’t panic. Be prepared to survive at sea. If you activate an EPIRB with GPS function a satellite signal is sent to AMSA in Canberra and local Marine Rescue, Emergency Services or Water Police will be alerted to your details and the exact location. How long that help takes to arrive depends on the weather, conditions and your location.

As the skipper of any vessel you are responsible for the safety of all people on board. Most boat owners don’t even think about that when heading off on a fishing trip. You check the weather. You make the call as to whether it’s safe to head out on the water and you make the call if things turn nasty and it’s time to head back home. You are responsible for telling Marine Rescue or Coast Guard exactly where you are going, how many people on board and when you’ll be back. You make the decision to tell everyone to put a life jacket on if conditions are rough. If there is an emergency situation you are the person responsible for the group. You decide if everyone abandons ship, you make the MAYDAY radio call. You ensure everyone has a life jacket on. You activate the EPIRB. That’s a lot of responsibility so it pays to know your emergency procedures and make sure your boat and safety gear are all up to scratch and in date. You will also be the one fined for out of date or missing safety gear if you’re pulled over. The worst scenario may be that you are the one who gets to explain to you mates family why he drowned because of your negligence.

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