All recreational boaties should carry two forms of waterproof communication when you’re on the water. Check they work where you are boating.
Remember: If you can’t be heard, you can’t be helped.
Click here for key contacts in Otago.
Certain types of communication are more effective in different areas, so prepare for your surroundings.
There are three broad categories of communication equipment:
- Those that use satellites – especially emergency locator beacons and satellite phones.
- Those that use land-based stations – especially marine radio and mobile phones.
- Those that rely on audio or visual signals – including flares, lights, whistles, and horns.
Satellite Emergency Distress Beacons
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) or Personal Locator Beacons (PLB) are forms of emergency locator beacons, they provide the most reliable way of signalling a distress situation. They provide a one-way indication of distress and a boat’s location directly to Search and Rescue authorities anywhere in the world and are suitable for vessels at sea and on inland waterways. Other than the initial purchase, Emergency Distress Beacons are free. They must be registered at www.beacons.org.nz.
EPIRBs, being slightly bulkier, are designed specifically for boats, ships and other activities on water and can float with their antenna above the water. PLBs are designed more for land usage. While all PLBs are waterproof, most cannot float with their antenna out of the water and they have a shorter battery life than an EPIRB.
A VHF radio is designed to operate in the marine environment and is used extensively as a communications tool by the coastal boating community. A 24/7 distress and safety radio service is provided by Maritime New Zealand, which monitors the international channel 16 distress channel. Coastguard New Zealand also provides coverage around large parts of the coast.
VHF radio users are required to hold a Maritime Radio Operator’s Certificate and have an individual call-sign, with courses and call-sign information available from www.boatingeducation.org.nz (these are not required, unless you are making a distress or emergency call on channel 16). A call-sign allows the Search and Rescue sector to quickly access the contact details you have provided.
Maritime New Zealand’s Radio Handbook has more information on maritime communication.
Almost everyone carries a mobile phone these days but these are generally only helpful if kept dry and when you are close to land. Keep yours in a sealed waterproof bag, in a secure location. Save the battery for essential communication. You can call 111 if in distress. Be aware that you may not have cell phone coverage so always take another form of communication. Unlike maritime radio, a mobile phone does not allow a boatie in distress to broadcast for help to other boaties that might be in the vicinity.
Phones are nevertheless a very useful safety communications back-up tool, particularly given their almost universal carriage.
Pyrotechnic flares and waterproof torches are widely recognised and, where practical, may be considered for inclusion in an emergency communication kit.
The major limitations of flares are that they are dependent on other boaties in the vicinity (or people on shore) seeing them during the relatively short time they are alight, understanding what they mean, and knowing how to respond.
Whistles, horns, and mirrors
There are a range of other signalling devices that can be used for communication, including a whistle, manual horn (aerosol canister, rechargeable, powered), mirror etc. Like flares, they are very reliant on someone being able to see or hear the distress signal, knowing what it means, and then being able to act on it.