Beacon aids paddlers

Lookout! Issue 33, June 2015

A decision by six waka ama paddlers to take along some extra kit may have helped them avoid a potentially deadly situation.
Waka ama in action
Maritime New Zealand ©2019
Other waka ama crews in action.

The crew was preparing to set out for a routine after-work paddle offshore from a city coastline. It was standard practice for them to meet up, discuss the weather and other safety concerns, check the kit in their canoe, and set off for a quick jaunt that would have them safely ashore again before nightfall.

On finding their VHF hand-held radio missing from the club stores, a visitor who had joined the crew – who works as a commercial fisherman – decided to take along a cellphone in a waterproof plastic bag; as well as a club personal locator beacon (PLB) which had been left in a club lifejacket.

When activated, these small transmitting devices broadcast their owner’s location on the 406 MHz international distress frequency. The signals from New Zealand-registered PLBs are picked up by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), which then coordinates the search and rescue response.

The conditions were marginal, and not long after the crew left the port’s breakwater and paddled up the coast, the wind and swells began to build. Before long the swells were reaching five metres or more, the temperature had dropped and winds were gusting above 30 knots, in fading light. The crew decided to head back to the port but, before they could turn the canoe around, a large wave swamped it and knocked the paddlers into the water. Paddles were torn from hands and plastic bailers washed overboard.

The strong wind and big swells prevented the crew from following their usual procedure of using the outrigger as leverage to tip the vessel and empty out the water, before righting it and reboarding. They found it increasingly difficult to regain control and get the bow pointed out of the wind in the direction they needed to go. With swells continuing to swamp the boat, the paddlers began to feel the effects of fatigue and cold water, made worse by the chilling winds. The crew member with the cell phone called port authorities, but the noise of the wind blowing into the phone prevented him from being understood clearly.

Finally, with conditions showing no sign of easing and early indications of hypothermia in some crew members, it was decided to activate the PLB.

RCCNZ picked up the beacon’s signal and its search and rescue coordinators were immediately aware that someone was in danger in the area where the signal was transmitting from. First responders from the port, NZ Police, the Fire Service and St Johns Ambulance were directed to the port entrance. A commercial vessel joined the response, along with members of the waka ama club, who briefed responders about the craft and the paddlers’ identities.

While the rescue effort was getting underway onshore, out on the water one of the waka ama crew managed to pull the canoe’s bow away from the wind and into the right homeward direction, and the paddlers began the long slog back to the port. As they approached the port marker, the deepening twilight and high swells were making it difficult for the crew to fix their position. Just at the right time, the stern deck of the commercial vessel was lit up, giving them enough illumination to take a bearing and continue towards the beach. Finally, more than hour after they’d planned to return, the exhausted crew landed their canoe under their own power.

Emergency services assessed the paddlers and transferred them to hospital, where they were treated and observed for signs of hypothermia before being released the same evening.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • New Zealand weather can be highly unpredictable. It is important to check the most up-to-date version of the Swellmap forecast if planning a coast paddle.
  • The crew were surprised by the rapid changes in weather and sea state. In the event, their decision to carry extra communications was well founded. Had they gone out to sea without them, they would have had no way to call for help in the unexpectedly rough and deteriorating conditions.
  • All recreational boaties are recommended to carry two reliable waterproof ways to call for help in an emergency, even when they don’t consider there is a risk, and this incident highlights the value of that advice.
  • It is important to call for help when it is clear that safety is at risk. RCCNZ was quickly able to alert rescue responders in the area. Had the paddlers not been able to turn their vessel back in the return direction, some crew members could have become seriously affected by hypothermia and less able to stay upright or afloat before help arrived. The crew could also have ended up trying to paddle back to the port in darkness, without having lights to take their bearings from, and without rescuers knowing where to look for them.
  • Following this incident, the waka ama club has reviewed its overall safety procedures and is providing additional member training in handling swamping and winter conditions as well as upgrading its radios and equipment. Individual waka ama crews are now more aware of already existing club policy regarding the need to carry two separate waterproof ways of calling for help; and are choosing to wear warmer kit such as thermals or wetsuits for winter paddling. Daylight safety margins have been increased to minimise risk.

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