Coastguard – Waving not enough

We’re well into the summer season, and the word from the local Coastguard units is that boaties are really taking the safety message on board: more people are using their call signs on the radio, more lifejackets are being worn, and we’re seeing fewer incidents as a result. That’s really great news.

One thing we’d love to see used more effectively is VHF. Basically, it’s your best buddy at sea. The other day, we set out to find a vessel – but instead of using their radio, they tried to wave us down. Because they were no longer at their original reported location, and we were dealing with heavy seas, we missed the hand signals and overshot them, so there was a delay while we backtracked. The radio is always your top option for communication because it reaches all our rescue vessels and our operations room, plus private vessels. Call us on the open channels (80 or 82) and we’ll stop in our tracks. Call us, too, if you’ve moved some distance from your last reported location.

Another example where radio would have been ideal occurred a couple of days earlier, when a shore observer on Great Barrier Island reported that a vessel several kilometres offshore had let off an orange distress flare. So we were sent over at ‘best speed’, and the Westpac helicopter was dispatched also. On arrival, we were stood down, and learned that the boat had let off the flare because it had lost steering. Fortunately, some nearby private vessels were able to help the boat back to shore. On this occasion, the use of a flare was unwarranted, as the boatie was in no grave and immediate danger; it was a beautiful afternoon with mirror-calm seas. A request to Coastguard for assistance, on VHF channel 82 or 80, would have been enough. It’s possible they had no radio – hopefully they do now. On the plus side, it’s great that boaties are carrying flares; the more methods of communication you have, the better.

It’s worth bearing in mind, of course, that a minor incident can rapidly turn into an emergency if conditions – such as the sea state, your health, your battery charge and so on – deteriorate. If so, report the worsening situation to Coastguard, and they will upgrade the response appropriately.

So, if you own VHF gear, check it regularly. And if you’re not sure how to use it, there’s an excellent course – the Maritime VHF Radio Operator Certificate. It takes a day to complete and costs $79. For booking details, visit