The headlines are stark— Boating Tragedy: Four people are dead and one remains missing after a boat ran into difficulty off Te Hapua in the Far North.

Ten people were onboard the recreational charter fishing vessel when it activated an emergency beacon after it began sinking about 8pm on Sunday. Five of those onboard were rescued and were taken to Kaitaia Hospital.

Daryl Sykes outlines the rock lobster fishing industry commitment to maritime safety, in light of the fact that…

Once again people have died in a boating tragedy. Those who have survived owe their lives to marine search and rescue personnel. And more often than not it will be a commercial fishing vessel that is first on the scene.

January 2019 and a kayak fisherman drifted about 16km off a remote Wairarapa coastal settlement, sparking a search and rescue effort. He had been wearing a wetsuit and a lifejacket and had tied himself to his kayak with a light rope. Commercial rock lobster fisherman Dugald Cameron and his crewmen searched for two hours in rough conditions before finding the kayaker and bringing him safely to shore. The search was coordinated on the local marine radio network.

April 2021 and a trawler style vessel reported distress off the Marlborough coastline. An Interislander and a Bluebridge ferry both responded to the distress call, as did two commercial fishing boats. Around 9:50pm the Interislander ferry located the vessel, approximately four nautical miles out to sea, and one of the fishing boats towed the stricken boat to safety.

June 2023 and a 15-metre sailing vessel was stationed just off the north island east coast at Flat Point when it suffered a rudder malfunction just after 9pm. Rough sea conditions meant the ground tackle was ripped from the deck when the crew tried to anchor against the storm. In dark and foggy conditions with a big sea running, the yacht was swept towards the shore.

Local media reported the Wairarapa Police Area Commander as saying that the severity of the weather conditions meant it “was too dangerous to launch a helicopter rescue in the dark. Due to the urgency of the situation, the closest vessel to help was a nearby local fishing asset, Tai Kahu.”

The Tai Kahu rescue crew

– professional rock lobster fishing skipper Johnny Burkhart, crew member Mark Anderson, and Luke McKay [a crew member from another commercial vessel]

– made it to the yacht at about 11.45pm. “We just gassed it,” said Burkhart. “It was pitch black and foggy, in three-metre swells and rough sea.”

Once the two yachties were hauled aboard the rescue boat with a rope, they were wrapped in blankets and transported as quickly as possible to hospital. The yacht had to be abandoned to the mercy of the ocean, as the sea was becoming wilder. But due to the bravery and skill of the rescuers, no lives were lost. And similar scenarios are repeated around the coastline in every year – not all of them have happy endings.

Commercial fishermen have a very personal stake in maritime safety which extends further than their mandatory obligations under Marine Operator Safety Systems (MOSS) requirements overseen by Maritime New Zealand. Rock lobster fishermen have initiated funded and maintained several marine radio networks which provide a safety net for all mariners and a vital link in the marine search and rescue operations. Te Anau based fishermen negotiated with DOC back in the 1980s to have a repeater station installed in the Fiordland National Park. Cape Palliser lobster fishermen established a marine radio network in the 1990s. Those stations each filled extensive gaps in the coastal radio coverage at the time.

Fishing families have operated coastal radio schedules around the coastline of both the north and south islands for decades and the volunteer radio operators have been formally acknowledged for their services.

John McLellan, an Otago lobster fishermen and maritime safety advocate established Moeraki Marine Radio in 1953 and was the chair and marine search advisor for North Otago Search and Rescue for over 50 years. In 2009, Mr McLellan was given the gold award for the most significant contribution to search and rescue in New Zealand. He also received the Queen’s Service Medal for services to marine search and rescue in 2010.

Meri Leask, Maureen Jones and Carol Brown have been honoured for their contribution as marine radio operators. Collectively, the three women have amassed 116 years of service to Southland mariners. All three ladies have experienced the heartbreak of chatting to a fisherman one day, and then never again. The emotional strain is an aspect that is not often talked about.

As the summer boating and fishing season draws near it is important that all marine users are properly prepared. Vessel and gear maintenance are not the only important tasks

Before setting off vessel operators:

• Must check the forecast that the weather is going to be suitable for boating. 

• Should trust their instinct and turn back if the wind and sea conditions deteriorate. 

• Have no doubt that lifejackets save lives. 

• And take communication devices to call for help if need be.

Ideally two forms of communication should be carried by boaties – such as a VHF radio and a distress beacon. VHF radios can be permanently attached to the vessel, or hand-held VHF radios can be carried on a person or in a grab-bag nearby.

Every vessel with a VHF radio acts as a ‘station’ and can come to the rescue of others if they hear a distress alert on the emergency Channel 16, or a local channel.

Power and sailboat operators who get into difficulty can get help quicker if they are able alert the crews of nearby vessels and make direct contact with the Maritime Operations Centre. The centre then puts out an alert to all vessels in the vicinity and to the 24/7 Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand (RCCNZ). Search and Rescue Officers (SAROs) raise the alarm with Police, Coastguard or other rescuers as required. RCCNZ also monitors signals from distress beacons, which has the benefit of transmitting an exact location.

SAROs then check with the emergency contacts for the registered beacon to learn what rescue services – such as the crews of a helicopters, or Police and Coastguard patrol boats can expect when they arrive on the scene. This includes how many are in the party and the intended activity, such as fishing or sailing.

Be watersafe – don’t be a statistic.

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