HELP – can you call for it?

Lookout! Issue 27, December 2012

The trouble with trouble is that it can happen anywhere, at any time, to anyone. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are or how many years you’ve had on the water – if you can’t call for help, no one can rescue you.

The last issue of Lookout! featured a story about five people on a boat who found themselves unexpectedly in the water. All managed to climb out and all were wearing lifejackets. They had an EPIRB, flares, VHF radio and cellphones within arm’s reach, but these all went down with the boat. They survived four hours in the water with no means to call for help before two of the group lost consciousness and drowned. The remaining three struck out for a distant boat and were eventually rescued. If one or more of the people on board had carried some way of calling for help, the outcome could well have been very different.

Make sure you can reach communications equipment in an emergency

There are several ways you can signal that you need help. One of the critical factors in a survival situation is being able to tell emergency services that you are in distress and where you are.

You should carry at least two of the following:

  • VHF radio
  • distress beacon (EPIRB or PLB)
  • flares (orange smoke (day time), red handheld (night time)
  • cellphone (if in range and protected from water)
  • waterproof torch (to attract attention at night).

Remember, if your boat goes down or capsizes, some or all of the above need to be accessible. They are no good if you can’t reach them or water has damaged them. Make sure you and everyone on board knows what emergency communications you have, and how to access and use them.

VHF radio

VHF distress calls are broadcast on channel 16, which is monitored at all times, and is dedicated to distress, safety and calling. All VHF stations provide a separate working channel for other communications.

The use of mayday is prohibited except to indicate distress. The distress call has priority over all other transmissions. Vessels hearing it must immediately cease all transmissions that could interfere with the distress communication and maintain a listening watch on the frequency.

A mayday call is a request for immediate assistance. If you hear a mayday call, listen, and if possible write it down. Determine whether you’re in a position to help. If not, maintain radio silence. If no other station acknowledges the mayday call, acknowledge it and help as much as you can.

Coverage The maritime radio service consists of 30 coastal VHF stations providing coverage around the coastal waters of New Zealand. There is no VHF coverage on many of New Zealand’s inland waterways, so VHF radio is not suitable in all areas where people go boating.

Call signs A call sign is a unique identification code. It is registered on a database and means that search and rescue authorities can access information about your vessel to help locate you faster in an emergency. Any person can make a mayday call when in distress, but there are penalties for improper use.

Fixed or hand-held VHF?

A fixed VHF radio has a greater range than a handheld radio and is better for regular communication, but you may not be able to access it or use it in an emergency if it is damaged by water. If attached to your person, a waterproof handheld radio will be able to used even if you end up in the water.

Distress beacons

A distress beacon is a portable electronic device that you can use to alert rescuers that you are in a life-threatening situation and need help. It is one of the most reliable ways of signalling that you need assistance.

Distress beacons operate on the 406MHz frequency, which the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) monitors around the clock.

The two types of beacon used on the water are:

  • EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) – for use on boats and ships

    These are waterproof and designed to float upright to be activated manually, and some are self-activating in water and may float free of a vessel in an emergency. Many have strobe lights and lanyards, with brackets to fit them to your vessel.
  • PLB (personal locator beacon) – for use in remote locations

    These are smaller portable devices and are increasingly being used on boats, but may not be fully waterproof or able to float. They are activated manually and usually have a shorter battery life than EPIRBs once activated. Attach your PLB to your lifejacket or clothing where it can be reached easily in an emergency.

How does the distress beacon system work?

  1. A distress beacon is activated.
  2. Its signal, with its unique identification number or Hex ID, is transmitted to the nearest satellite.
  3. An alert is sent to the nearest local user terminal.
  4. The alert is processed by the nearest mission control centre and forwarded to the rescue coordination centre.
  5. The rescue coordination centre mobilises rescuers and directs them to the beacon's position.

RCCNZ usually receives alerts from distress beacons within minutes, after being detected by satellite. Depending on the type of beacon you’re carrying, it can take two hours or longer for satellites to pinpoint your location. It can also take time for emergency resources to be launched and to reach you.

A beacon with built-in GPS is highly recommended and can greatly speed up a rescue response. It sends geographical coordinates that are accurate to within about 120 metres of your position, whereas a non-GPS beacon is accurate only to about 5 kilometres.

Be prepared

If you get into difficulties when the weather is very bad, be prepared to wait – rescue services may not be able to reach you at night or in extreme conditions, even when they know where you are.

Why you should register your beacon?

Register your beacon so that, in an emergency, RCCNZ can find your contact details, information about your vessel, and names of people who may be able to provide valuable information about your party and your plans. This will help ensure RCCNZ can launch the most appropriate response.

Having your beacon registered also prevents search and rescue resources being needlessly sent out if there is a false alarm.

If your beacon is set off accidentally, phone RCCNZ immediately on 0508 472 269. There is no penalty for accidental activation.

Register now – it’s free

Registering your beacon is free. It is also a legal requirement. Phone: 0508 406 111, email or visit the beacons website

Will your EPIRB float free?

In September a fishing vessel went missing off the coast of Fiordland with two people on board. After days of searching, the vessel was located, but the men have not been found. They had a fixed EPIRB on board their boat as part of the minimum equipment requirements on a commercial vessel. These work well when there’s time to activate them, but if things go wrong very quickly, they often can’t be reached or there’s no time to set them off. A float-free EPIRB will self-activate and let people know you need help, even if you can’t. It needs to be mounted where it will not get wet under normal circumstances and where it can float free of the vessel.

Bag your phone

Most people take a cellphone along when out boating. Your cellphone is useful as a back-up means of calling for help if there’s reception where you are boating, but it will become useless once wet. The simple act of putting your phone in a ziplock bag and in your pocket means that you’ll be able to access and use it if you end up in the water. And if you get your phone wet by accident on your boat, it will save your phone too.

If you need to call for help, dial 111.

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