No excuses

Liliana Engelhardt | VOLUME 27, ISSUE 5

Each year far too many boaters end up as statistics. Once you’re in the water, your chances of survival depend on a handful of critical factors.

It had been a great day out on the boat, the ice box was full of fish and the weather held up quite nicely, too. Four of you, all mates with an appreciation and experience of the wide open sea, left before dawn to head out to your secret spot onboard your 5.5m trailer boat. It was a great day, with plenty of laughs and fish all-round.

With an hour to home, the wind picked up and dark clouds rolled in so fast it was like they came out of nowhere. Soon the sea had been whipped into 2m rolling walls of water, one of which crashed into the cockpit like a boulder of green liquid. Suddenly the engine died, most probably water in the electrics. Before anyone could react, the boat was awash. Another wave overcame the boat and suddenly a great boating day had turned into a nightmare. You managed to grab a PFD, but it all happened so suddenly you couldn’t be sure about the rest of the crew.

Someone grabbed on to you as he went into the water, dragging you with him. But he banged his head on the way over and lost his grip on you. That was the last you saw of him. He was unconscious, wasn’t wearing a PFD and was being battered by big seas. Your other mate’s vest inflated soon after he hit the water, but there was one other guy still unaccounted for.

The final count is two rescued, one lost at sea and at least one funeral to attend. The memories will haunt you for the rest of your life.

This is just one of countless scenarios that can happen all too easily and frighteningly quickly. All it takes is an unfortunate combination of circumstances and before you know it rescue boats are hauling bodies from the water.

Who’s responsible for onboard safety?

Essentially the skipper is responsible for onboard safety, but realistically everyone on a boat is responsible for their own well-being. When it comes to safety, it’s no use looking for excuses or passing the buck. In the end, it’s up to each individual to behave in a safe manner, ensure they know what safety equipment is onboard, where it’s stowed and how to use it.

Practice makes perfect

There’s a reason why rescue and emergency services drill and drill again – the more frequently they go through the motions, the more likely they are to automatically react in an emergency. The same goes for the rest of us – make a plan for emergency situations and practise it.

Some scenarios, such as man overboard (MOB) manoeuvres and climbing aboard without a ladder, are easier to rehearse than others. Lighting a fire in the engine bay just to practise extinguishing it obviously isn’t realistic, but being aware of the possible fire dangers, knowing how to handle fire-fighting equipment and actually having it onboard is all a part of being properly prepared.

If one of your crew falls overboard, designate someone to point at them and keep eyes on them ’till you bring the boat round. Throw something after them that will assist them in staying afloat and make them easier to spot. This can be a life-ring, a rescue device such as a Dan Buoy or Burke Marine’s throw bag, or even a water toy … if there’s nothing else at hand, anything is better than nothing.

Dragging a wet and exhausted (or possibly unconscious) person out of the water and into a boat is not easy. Using specialised rescue nets and cradles, such as Sea Scoopa, will help greatly. For practice, pick a calm day, anchor in a safe place and have one of the crew jump in. You’ll all learn a thing or two about team work while you’re trying to pull them back into the boat!

Location, location

A good way to keep track of everyone onboard is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) system that’s linked to an alerting station at the helm. These are simple, two-part systems that consist of an alerting unit (the transmitter/PLB worn by a person) and a base unit (monitor/receiver) with an alarm and locator. Various manufacturers offer devices that are activated either manually by the wearer, by contact with water, or if a person moves more than a set distance from the base unit. All are well worth considering for those trips where the skipper’s attention is focused on the operation of the boat or other activities.


The purpose of a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is to increase the wearer’s chances of survival by assisting them to float with their face out of the water. But PFDs can only save lives if they are worn. They are of no use to anyone if stored somewhere, possibly in a spot that’s difficult to access in an emergency. Unexpected situations occur suddenly, and donning a lifejacket when you’re already in the water is close to impossible.

For a PFD to do its job properly, it must be:

• Worn

• Correctly fastened

• The correct type for the situation

• The correct size for the wearer

• Correctly maintained.

But boaters who store, rather than wear, their gear – in particular those who go to sea in smaller, more vulnerable trailer craft – say they do so because it’s uncomfortable to wear, or because they don’t think they will need it. With all the reminders by authorities and volunteer organisations, incident reports in the media and impending fines for not wearing a PFD when it’s mandatory, it’s hard to fathom why there are still so many who resist donning the one thing that can make so much difference to their personal safety on the water. Happily, more and more boaters are now wearing PFDs during their on-water activities, but the reluctance to do so by some is the biggest challenge authorities, manufacturers and skippers face.

Early PFDs were bulky vests that inhibited movement and were mostly only worn under duress. While more comfortable, compact and buoyant versions were being developed for navy, aviation and professional maritime use, recreational boaters didn’t have much to choose from in the way of PFDs.

However, in recent times the development of high-tech material sand automatic inflation devices has progressed hand in hand with improved standards for safety in recreational boating, finally evolving into what’s available today: a wide range of PFDs that are not only highly functional, but easy to don, comfortable to wear and, in some cases, even fashionable.

The new Australian standard for PFDs – AS 4758 – was introduced into recreational boat legislation nationally on July 1, 2010. This standard classifies PFDs by their level of buoyancy (the ‘performance level’ measured in Newtons) rather than their type. The best way to choose the correct performance level of a PFD is to go to the marine agency’s website in your state (see box P124) and look up what the regulations are for where you go boating.


Offshore, extreme conditions, special protective clothing, heavy equipment. Immediate protection for unconscious persons, with turnover within five seconds. 275N
Offshore, foul weather clothing. Only limited protection for unconscious persons wearing heavy waterproof clothing or in extreme sea states. 150N
Sheltered waters, light clothing. Only limited protection for unconscious persons, depending on clothing. 100N
Swimmers only, sheltered waters, help at hand, limited protection against drowning. Not safe for unconscious persons. 50N

New Zealand requires lifejackets to meet the New Zealand Standard 5823. This standard classifies PFDs by type and boating activity, and still largely encompasses inherently buoyant lifejackets. If you’re in doubt of which type to use, check with Maritime New Zealand at:

New Zealand maritime law requires all skippers to carry enough lifejackets of the right size and type (which meet NZ Standard 5823:2005 or another standard accepted by Maritime NZ) for everyone onboard. Wearing a lifejacket is mandatory at all times unless the risk is very low. Children must wear lifejackets at all times in boats under 6m, and crotch straps are mandatory for all children’s lifejackets. The NZ regulations require PFDs to be stored so that they are “immediately available in case of a sudden emergency or capsize”. The only time they need not be worn in a boat less than 6m is when the risk is exceptionally low.


Whether or not your older PFD is still legal depends on what you’ve got. PFDs made to the old Australian Standard for type 1, 2 and 3 (AS 1512, AS 1499 and AS 2260) can still be used if they correlate with the new standard, have been correctly maintained and are in good working condition, and provided the performance level (buoyancy) falls into the correct category for the type of boating you do.

While each Australian state and territory has slightly different regulations on when and where to wear a PFD, the standards for PFDs are the same throughout Australia. In New Zealand, recreational boaters are required to wear PFDs that meet the New Zealand Standard 5823, which is similar to the old Australian standard and is categorised by types 1, 2 and 3. New Zealand also goes by ISO12402, which is an international standard that comes quite close to the Australian Standard AS 4758.

If in doubt, contact your local marine safety authority to see if an existing lifejacket made to the old standards is still accepted. Keep in mind that if a PFD is not compliant, it can attract a fine.


Basically, PFDs fall into two groups: inherently buoyant, and inflatable.

Inherently buoyant PFDs are made from buoyant materials such as foam and don’t need to be inflated. They require very little maintenance and are available in a wide range of styles and performance levels. Not all are recommended for unconscious persons.

Inflatable PFDs have inflatable chambers (bladders) that need to be inflated before the device is buoyant. Air or gas, usually from a small CO2 cylinder, is discharged into the chamber after the firing mechanism is activated either manually or automatically. An automatic system must be backed up by a manual override, which allows the user to pull the toggle and inflate the lifejacket.

Manual and some types of automatically inflatable PFDs are not recommended for children: in an emergency, a child may not be able to pull the cord on a manual PFD, and depending on the firing mechanism in an automatic PFD, it either needs to come into contact with water or be completely submerged below a certain depth. A child might not plunge deep enough to activate the inflation mechanism.

Inflatable PFDs require regular inspections (of the firing mechanism, the gas chamber etc), usually annually and always after deployment. This should be carried out by an accredited service provider – check with the salesperson or the manufacturer for details. The cost involved is minimal and the inconvenience marginal compared to the risk of using an incorrectly maintained PFD – not to mention the fines if you’re caught with an expired PFD!


Function, quality and suitability of a PFD must always be the deciding criteria when choosing a product. Just as important as wearing the correct PFD is that it fits properly.

A small child will need a snug model that self-rights the wearer, lifts the head clear of the water and is fastened with an additional crotch-strap so it can’t ride up or slip up over the head. A large man wearing heavy woollens will need a larger-sized PFD so it can be buckled up properly. Anyone wearing work gear or rubber boating boots might want to consider a higher performance level than just the minimum requirement.

The problem with an inadequately fastened PFD is it might ride up and even slip over the wearer’s head, or twist to one side so that the wearer struggles to remain upright. Rectifying this once you’re in the water is nearly impossible.


Recreational boating safety regulations vary from state to state, as each state’s marine safety agency adapts the national guidelines and standards to suit local conditions and requirements. Boaters are advised to refer to their local marine authority for information about what’s permitted, what they must and must not do and also what fines are in place for breaching any regulations.


Marine Safety Victoria:

Maritime Safety Queensland:

NSW Transport Maritime:

NT Transport Group, Marine Safety: Department for Transport, Energy and Infrastructure:

Marine and Safety Tasmania:

WA Department of Transport – Marine: New Zealand:


Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are both designed to be used in life-threatening emergency situations to alert rescue services. Both emit a signal on the 406MHz frequency that is picked up by a system of satellites known as the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme. Both should also have a secondary 121.5MHz final homing beacon to assist location by search aircraft.

When an EPIRB or PLB distress beacon is activated, the signal it transmits is detected by a satellite, which reports the position to rescue authorities. The 406MHz beacons developed for the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system transmit a unique code that identifies the beacon. If the beacon is registered, this code will include who it belongs to, what type of vessel it’s on and the emergency contacts. If it has a GPS receiver, the transmitted code will also include the location.


EPIRBs are required to float upright with the antenna clear of water, must transmit for at least 48 hours, include a strobe light, and can be manually or automatically deployed.

PLBs deploy manually, are not required to float and must transmit for a minimum of 24 hours (although products are available that float and/or transmit for longer).

PLBs were originally designed for land-based activities, while EPIRBs were specifically designed to signal maritime distress. Most EPIRBs use the water surfaces to reflect the signal upwards to a satellite and are most effective when deployed on water or when upright in a vessel. Australian manufacturer KTI builds EPIRBs that are designed to function just as effectively on land because of the way they’re constructed.

Australian State and Territory marine authority regulations require all boats operating more than 2nm away from the mainland shore to carry an EPIRB that meets the Australian standard (that’s AS/NZS 4280.1 for EPIRBs and AS/NZS 4280.2 for PLBs). New Zealand specifies all EPIRBs must be Cospas-Sarsat 406MHz compliant.

While an EPIRB is not mandatory in New Zealand, Maritime New Zealand highly recommends having one onboard at all times. Kiwi pleasure craft heading overseas are, however, required to carry a 406MHz EPIRB, as are yachts undertaking coastal races where Category 2 or 3 safety rules apply. For further advice, contact the Maritime New Zealand Recreational Boating Team at:

A PLB is not accepted by authorities anywhere as a substitute for an EPIRB on a boat.

EPIRBs and PLBs come in two types: those with GPS and those without. Those with GPS will enable rescue services to locate the beacon’s position faster, as they’ll receive a location along with the distress signal. Look for devices that update the GPS signal at intervals (rather than just once), which enables tracking of movement/drift. Without GPS, Cospas-Sarsat can calculate a beacon’s location – but it takes time, as it needs to triangulate where the signal is coming from. Devices with GPS have an accuracy of 120m, while non-GPS have a location accuracy of 5km. In stormy seas or in the dark, this can be the difference between being found fast or too late.

Crew members are encouraged to each carry a PLB in the event of a MOB situation, preferably on a PFD in an integrated pouch near the shoulder so it remains upright and out of water. This can be very helpful in locating someone, especially in heavy seas or strong currents, or if you’ve fallen off a larger boat that takes longer to turn.


Besides it being compulsory to register a 406MHz distress beacon in Australia and New Zealand, it’s far more useful if it’s registered.

Each 406MHz beacon has a HexID or ‘Unique Identity Number’ (UIN) programmed into it. This is transmitted when the beacon is activated.

When registering a beacon, information about the owner, details of the boat and owner/emergency contact details are also recorded.

This information will aid the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) in its endeavours to rescue persons in distress. The New Zealand equivalent is the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ).

Without this information, you’ll be harder to locate, as Search and Rescue (SAR) teams won’t know what they’re looking for. Also, many distress signals received by SAR services are from beacons that were inadvertently activated and don’t constitute an emergency at all. A quick phone call can clarify that before rescue teams are dispatched – but they need a registered phone number.

It’s worth noting that the registration sticker you’ll receive must be attached to the beacon as proof of registration. Failure to do this can result in a fine if the sticker is not found affixed to the beacon during a safety equipment inspection.

All types of Australian coded 406MHz distress beacons can be registered online at: Registration is free and valid for two years.

Register a New Zealand coded EPIRB by phoning RCCNZ on 0800 406 111 or download the PDF at: Registration is free.

From February 1, 2010, old analogue EPIRBs and PLBs operating on 121.5MHz were no longer licensed for use and activating one may incur a fine. As satellite systems no longer receive 121.5MHz alerts, it is now used as a final homing beacon by search and rescue aircraft when they are close to the site. Since the aircraft cannot receive the 406MHz signal, the crew will ‘listen’ to the 121.5MHz signal and use it to home in on the beacon.


Cospas-Sarsat is a global system. If an Australian-coded, 406MHz distress beacon is activated overseas, an alert will be sent to the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) in the region in which the distress incident is occurring. A second notification is then sent to RCC Australia (or RCC New Zealand) where the beacon is registered.

The same applies to alerts from beacons activated in the Australian or New Zealand region that are registered in other countries, only in reverse.

AMSA advises that Australian residents who buy a distress beacon registered outside of Australia must have the beacon recoded with the Australian country code and register it with AMSA. It also warns that some PLBs manufactured elsewhere are programmed to transmit a Morse code ‘P’ as part of their signal. These beacons are unable to be registered in Australia.


Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) Australia

24-hour emergency contact telephone numbers: 1800 641 792 (Maritime)

Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ)

0508 472 269

0508 4RCCNZ

Or from outside New Zealand: +64 4 577 8030

I can swim, I won’t drown!

Most on-water incidents don’t end tragically, but far too many result in serious injury or loss of life, sometimes by drowning.

According to the Royal Life Saving Society – Australia, 315 people drowned in Australia between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011. Of the 47 deaths by drowning that occurred in ocean/harbour locations, ‘watercraft’ was the predominant activity undertaken prior to drowning with 38 per cent, followed by diving (19 per cent), fishing (15 per cent) and falls (six per cent). The 13 per cent whose activity was ‘unknown’ indicate that the person was alone and no one knew what they were doing.

By comparison, in the same period there were two crocodile related deaths and one death as the result of a shark attack.

Water Safety New Zealand’s 2011 Drowning Report recorded 123 deaths by drowning in 2011. Of those, 19 people drowned while boating, 17 while swimming, 13 during underwater related activities such as diving or snorkelling, six during ‘other’ recreational activities and 11 were engaged in land-based fishing.


An immersion survival suit probably isn’t necessary on a leisurely coastal cruise. It can, however, potentially save the life of a crew member when sailing the open ocean or cruising in colder regions. One manufacturer of such suits, Crewsaver, says its immersion suit prevents a typical wearer’s core body temperature from dropping by more than 2C after six hours in calm water of 0 to 2C. That’s very cold, but at least you’d stand a far better chance of being rescued alive. By comparison, a person who has the misfortune of falling into water that cold without such a suit will survive 15 to 30 minutes, maximum.

But while hypothermia certainly is a gradual killer even in water as ‘warm’ as 18C, it’s not the most frequent cause of deaths which occur as a result of falling into cold water. Instead, plunging in can cause a heart attack when cold blood from the extremities reaches the heart; or cause drowning from the involuntary sudden inhalation and hyperventilation that occurs on impact.

If you think this can’t happen in Australian coastal waters look at a sea surface temperature chart (eg: CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research: A sunny late-August day in Port Phillip Bay recorded a temperature at the sea’s surface of only 11.2C.

Improve your chances of survival (in water of any temperature) by wearing a PFD and clothing that will help conserve your body heat. Keep your head out of water and adopt a ‘hug’ pose – bring your knees up to your chest and strap your arms around your PFD.

Risk minimisation

One hand for yourself and one hand for the boat: this maxim is particularly true in foul weather, but also if your boat is crossing the wake from another, or if you’re suddenly knocked off balance. This is what grab handles are for.

If on deck during any situation where there’s a greater risk of falling overboard, wear a harness and hook yourself in.

Be aware of what the boat is doing. Look out for irregular or rogue waves and the wake from other boats and brace yourself with a firm hold.

Know your limitations. Before you put yourself (and others) at risk, swallow your pride and let someone else more suited to the task take over.

Wear the right gear: wear a PFD and dress warm – hypothermia slows reaction times and weakens even able-bodied and experienced boaters.

Apart from the blatantly obvious fact that children should, at all times, wear a suitable, properly fitting PFD, kids need to be kept under constant supervision of an adult. The smaller they are, the more so.

Do not venture out or enter the water if you have doubts about your ability to cope with the conditions. And check the weather report – heading out in uncertain (or unknown) conditions is a risk.

PWC safety

A Personal Water Craft (PWC) driver who ventured out just off Torquay, Victoria, was plucked from the water by rescue services after he activated the PLB attached to his lifejacket. Although he was wearing a 150N lifejacket and a full-body wetsuit, he was showing the first signs of hypothermia and exhaustion.

There were two flaws in his plan: he didn’t check the weather forecast; and he didn’t have a safety lanyard to stop the engine if he fell off his craft. In the strong currents, he quickly drifted too far away to be able to swim to his PWC or to shore.

When driving a PWC it’s essential that both rider and passengers wear an appropriate PFD as determined by your state’s marine safety agency. It’s also highly recommended to wear neoprene suits (or at least bottoms) that will protect the lower part of the body from injury that can result from falling in the water or being near the jet nozzle. Normal swimwear cannot protect body cavities against forceful water entry from jet thrust.

Always attach a lanyard from the kill switch to your wrist or PFD so the engine automatically shuts down if you fall off. And don’t underestimate the power of a PWC – they go fast and they do get airborne when jumping waves and wake. Such antics can rapidly go pear-shaped when inexperience is involved.

If you’re riding alone, let someone know where you’re going. The same rules and logic apply to venturing out with a boat: if you’re on your own, let someone know where you’re going and when you intend to be back. Take your EPIRB with you, and wear a PFD suitable for the water you’ll venture into – offshore must be at least a level 150N PFD (or type 401 in New Zealand).

Ultimately, no one ever goes out in a boat thinking they’re going to end up in the water, perhaps fighting for their life and the lives of their family or friends. After all, the overwhelming majority of boating trips have a happy ending. That’s why we go boating. Most boaters are responsible and take safety on the water seriously. But not all outings go according to plan. That’s why it pays to plan ahead. And by taking all the right precautions and making sure everyone is aware of where the safety gear is and how it’s used, everyone can end the day with a smile on their dial and a head full of great memories.

From all the staff of Club Marine, stay safe and enjoy your coming boating season.

How to-Safety