The case for making life jackets mandatory on boats

A week has passed since a charter boat sank at the entrance to Kaipara Harbour in bad weather. In that time many people have come forward and commented about the accident, about the skipper and about the boaties who were on board. All well and good, but one glaring question has been ignored.

The list of maritime tragedies that could have been avoided if boats going to sea had carried the proper safety equipment is long. Following each of them people have renewed calls for life jackets to be made compulsory. Following the renewed calls each time, nothing has happened. How many more people are going to die before the maritime equivalent of wearing a seat belt in a car becomes compulsory?

Bill McNatty, a 68 year old charter boat operator was trying to cross the Kaipara Bar, a risky proposition on the best of days, when his boat struck trouble. The weather was bad and other boaties had decided to stay ashore that day because of deteriorating conditions. There were 11 people on board, of whom seven would die, three would survive and one is still missing – most probably drowned.

Locals say that Mr McNatty was a very good skipper who took good care of his boat. Perhaps he did, but unfortunately it does not change the fact that not all of the people aboard The Francie had life jackets on. Aside from being in breach of Maritime New Zealand regulations regarding them, more than anything else, life jackets could have prevented most if not all of the deaths caused by the fatal crossing of the Kaipara Bar.

If the boat skipper was competent like the Kaipara locals say he was, then why was he rescued in a prior incident to the fatal accident of 27 November 2016? And why did another boatie raise issues with the Harbour Master about the competence of Mr McNatty?

Politicians seem reluctant to act to reduce the unnecessarily high rate of boating accidents that occur in New Zealand waters. It is ironic that while much effort goes into railway and road safety, boating safety seems to be a low priority despite New Zealanders love of both salt and fresh water being well known.

Maritime New Zealand recommends the following equipment for boaties:

Make sure you have the following items on board:

  • Boat hook and throwing line
  • Warm clothing
  • First aid kit
  • Navigation equipment
  • Bailing system
  • Rope
  • Waterproof torch
  • Alternative power (a spare outboard, oars or paddles).

Put together a floating ‘grab bag’ that contains all the emergency gear you would need should you need to abandon your boat. The bag should contain:

  • ways of calling for help, i.e. emergency distress beacon, flares or water-proof VHF radio
  • lifejackets

Sometime from now there may be a memorial to the tragedy on the Kaipara Harbour bar of November 2016. If so, hopefully it will be in full view of any boaties trying to cross it, to remind them that there can be a dreadful price to pay for getting it wrong.

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