Three rescued after beacon activated

Lookout! Issue 29, August 2013

Three men balancing on the hull of an upturned boat were rescued after they set off their 406MHz distress beacon in an operation coordinated by RCCNZ.
Upturned boat
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The upturned 7 metre trailer boat was anchored overnight and sank while Coastguard was attempting to retrieve it the following morning. It was later recovered.

The men had been fishing from a 7 metre hard-topped trailer-boat about 12 nautical miles from the harbour entrance. After checking the local weather forecast to ensure conditions for the day would be favourable, they crossed the harbour bar without incident, having made a trip report and confirmed their successful crossing to the local Coastguard.

When the men attempted to raise their anchor, they found it was snagged on the sea floor. After spending some time attempting to retrieve it, they left a marker buoy and visited a friend’s boat nearby.

When we turned the beacon on and the light started flashing, it was a bit of a hallelujah moment...

When they returned to try once more to uplift the snagged anchor, they tied the anchor warp to a cleat on the transom and the short length to a nearby handrail. The skipper revved the motor to try to free the anchor from the stern but the cleat gave way and hit one of the passengers. The rope quickly fed out until the section tied to the handrail was taut.

The skipper then throttled back and went aft to cut the rope, but the boat was swamped and turned upside down within seconds.

The three men managed to clamber on top of the upturned hull. Two were wearing lifejackets and the skipper dived into the cabin to try to retrieve a lifejacket for himself, without success. He did however, manage to retrieve the boat’s distress beacon.

“When we turned the beacon on and the light started flashing, it was a bit of a hallelujah moment,” the skipper said. “We knew then that we would be rescued.”

The Rescue Coordination Cenre New Zealand (RCCNZ) was able to use the distress beacon’s signal to give the helicopter crew a very accurate position for the men and the beacon also had a strobe light.

The helicopter was equipped with night vision and a winch, but the crew was unable to uplift the men due to the rough sea conditions.

It remained on scene until a Coastguard vessel arrived, directing the Coastguard crew to the upturned vessel.

The crew of the Coastguard vessel recovered the three men and returned to base, where an ambulance was waiting. The men were checked and one was treated for mild hypothermia.

The Coastguard crew had anchored the upturned trailer-boat before departing the rescue scene. The following morning they returned with the boat owner to recover the boat, but as they started to tow it back, the rope broke, and the boat eventually sank. It was later recovered.


  • A distress beacon is an effective and reliable way of calling for help, especially in areas where there is limited or no cell phone or VHF radio coverage. MNZ recommends that people carry at least two waterproof means of calling for help, such as a distress beacon, VHF radio, flares, or cell phone in a plastic bag.
  • The men had a hard-wired VHF radio and a hand-held VHF radio on board and also had one cell phone each. They also had coastal flares but were unable to retrieve them from the upturned boat. The skipper was able to dive into the upturned cabin to retrieve their distress beacon and activate it, raising the alarm.
    • It is often not possible to retrieve gear from an upturned boat. The skipper said “It was a matter of recounting how and where it was fixed to the hard top, holding my breath and taking my time to remove it without losing it”.
    • The skipper had carefully considered beacon placement when installing the beacon. “If it was in any other location, like down between the helm seats and the bulkhead, recovering it would have been a real mission,” he said.
    • MNZ recommends that people carry a means of calling for help on their person, rather than storing it on the boat where it can become inaccessible in an accident. Trouble often happens very quickly and there may not be enough time to retrieve gear.
    • Many people carry cell phones on their boats, but only about half of them seal their phones in waterproof plastic bags. The simple act of putting your cell phone in a ziplock bag can save your phone if it ends up in the water – and it could save your life.
    • The men had three cell phones on board, but only one was in a waterproof case. It was not being carried when the boat capsized.
  • RCCNZ Search and Rescue Officer Chris Henshaw said it was a textbook example of how effective beacons are and how beacon registration means a more targeted response can be launched.
    • “The 406MHz distress beacon was registered, so we were able to call the nominated emergency contact to establish the size of the party, type of vessel and what they were likely to be doing to inform the helicopter crew and Coastguard,” said Mr Henshaw.
    • “The beacon meant we were able to quickly get a very accurate position for the vessel and locate them easily. The rescue helicopter and Coastguard worked together in a very successful rescue.”
  • Lifejackets should be worn whenever practicable on a boat, even when conditions appear relatively calm. They should be worn at all times when there is a heightened risk.
    • Things can go wrong very quickly and there often is not enough time to retrieve and put on a lifejacket. Lifejackets reduce people’s tendency to panic in the water and increase their survival times. Had the men ended up spending a night in the water, especially without lifejackets, the outcome could have been very different.
  • Retrieving a snagged anchor is a potentially risky situation and it would have been prudent for all on board to have been wearing lifejackets while they were attempting to do this. The men’s attempt to retrieve the anchor by pulling it up from the stern, using the boat’s engine, is likely to have caused the swamping.
    • Using the boat’s engine caused the anchor rope to act like a bungee – when revs were lowered, the tension in the rope pulled the vessel’s stern down under the water. The stern platform then acted like a giant scoop, flooding the vessel’s stern. The rapid water ingress is likely to have dramatically affected the vessel’s stability, causing the capsize.

Watch “Anchors and Mooring”

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