Safe boating messages spreading - but we’re not home and dry yet

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 39, March 2012

As the summer boating season comes to an end, water safety agencies are reporting positive signs that safety messages are sinking in – but more work lies ahead.
Jim Lilley
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
MNZ Safety Inspector Jim Lilley at Lake Brunner.

The agencies have been out and about during summer, observing behaviour at boat ramps and on the water, undertaking surveys, offering advice, and handing out information. Their work will help build a current picture of our recreational boating environment.

MNZ Safety Inspectors Alistair Thomson and Jim Lilley say the information gathered by the agencies will contribute to a review of the National Boating Safety Strategy, scheduled for later this year.

The review, conducted by the National Pleasure Boat Safety Forum – a group comprising 16 water safety agencies including MNZ – will analyse the 85 recreational boating fatalities since 2007.

“This will provide an important opportunity to review the common causal factors involved in boating accidents and fatalities – such as lack of lifejackets, inability to communicate distress, boating in bad weather and alcohol consumption,” says Alistair.

In the meantime, Alistair says feedback from the promoters of boating safety this summer – including MNZ’s volunteer Safe Boating Advisors, Coastguard volunteers, regional council harbourmasters and their officers, and the Coastguard air patrol – paints a generally positive picture.

“On the plus side, agencies are reporting that more boaties are carrying lifejackets and communications equipment, while lifejacket wearing is slowly trending up and we’re seeing behavioral change in action,” says Alistair.

Jim says even balanced against increasing boat ownership and activity, the number of fatalities remains a concern.

There were 20 recreational boating fatalities in 2011, 14 in 2010 and 24 in 2009. In the first two months of 2012, there have been four recreational deaths.

“While in most areas we are seeing some really great examples of more people behaving responsibly and safely, in other areas on-water behaviour has not been so good,” says Jim.

“We are also seeing some common trends in the type of non-fatal incidents being reported – for example, groundings, collisions, near misses, travelling too fast or too close, and vessel capsizes.”

However, both men say there is evidence that people are responding to the safety messages. The following incident is an example of improved attitudes towards safety:

Just left the beach and started trolling-harling, with the rod in the rod holder. I was drifting using the offshore wind to provide trolling speed when the rod bent double – I had caught a rock. It was pulled out of the rod holder but I could see it floating so rowed towards it. When I got beside the floating rod and leaned over to pick it up the boat flipped and I was suddenly in the water. Using my waterproof hand-held VHF radio attached to my lifejacket I sent out a mayday call. I was rescued 20 minutes later.

“It’s real stories like this, from real boaties, that hammer home the importance of being prepared for the unexpected,” says Jim. “As this boatie found, things can come unstuck very quickly, and if you’re not able to ˛oat or communicate with someone, then your chances of survival are limited. Fortunately, due to him being very well prepared, the story had a happy ending.”

Alistair says the Forum is also developing targeted campaigns to reduce accidents. Recent research into the behaviour of males over 40 (the most over-represented group in boating fatalities) and their attitudes towards safety was also revealing.

“The research told us that when we go boating it’s about shared experiences, conviviality, thinking with the heart and enjoying life,” says Alistair. “When the research subjects were asked about safety and lifejackets, themes like control and security were evident. Lifejackets and safety equipment were about thinking with the head and fearing the worst.

“The ongoing challenge is finding a way to make lifejackets and safety equipment part of the ‘culture’ of boating, in the same way that putting on your seatbelt is an accepted part of driving on the road.”

MNZ’s new boating safety campaign, “Don’t be a clown, wear a lifejacket”, launched in December, was developed as a response to the research. Alistair says the television commercial aims to encourage skippers and crew to take responsibility for safety by using a touch of humour.

Screenshot from New Zealand Herald
New Zealand Herald online article: “Rescued fishermen ‘a pair of clowns’”.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

“We’ve had plenty of positive feedback about the commercial. Once the campaign has been up and running for a longer period, we’ll carry out some more detailed analysis to see if the message is sinking in.”

Alistair says the Forum is making gains in other areas as well, with all agencies committed to reducing recreational boating accidents and fatalities.

“Organisations like the Coastguard Boating Education Service and Yachting New Zealand, for example, are delivering excellent practical and theory-based courses to New Zealand boaties, and always looking at ways to get greater participation in boating education.

“Regional council harbourmasters are also undertaking education and enforcement action out on the water. We’ve seen a significant increase in enforcement action this summer – an essential tool for promoting better behaviour.”

Water Safety New Zealand regional workshops, a national swim-to-survive programme and strategies for Māori, Asian and Pacific Island communities have also been successful.

Alistair says the Accident Compensation Corporation, supported by MNZ, has delivered award-winning boating safety programmes to Polynesian communities in Auckland and in the Wellington region.

“All of these initiatives are part of the Forum’s goal of reducing boating accidents and fatalities, and all agencies will continue to work together towards this goal,” he says.

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