Lifejackets and personal locator beacons: live to tell the tale
The importance of lifejackets and personal locator beacons for your next water or land-based activity.
We spoke to three people who owe their lives to lifejackets and personal locator beacons (PLBs).
Crossing the bar
Robert, 64, was heading out across the Raglan Bar with a couple of mates on his six-metre boat Blue Horizon just after Christmas 2021. He’d decided to set out a crayfish trap, do some fishing and come back to shore.
Robert had been crossing the Raglan Bar in his boat for years. He’d taken a course about crossing the bar years prior, and aside from his engine cutting out once, he hadn’t had any major issues despite the hazards of crossing.
Robert radioed to let Coastguard know he was crossing the bar, by logging a bar crossing report.
A bar crossing can be treacherous. Where the tide meets the shallow build-up of sand, waves get bigger and break in unpredictable ways.
Combined with strong ocean winds and swift currents, these conditions can make bar crossings deadly.
He and his mates made sure they had lifejackets on and began the journey across.
But the conditions didn’t cause trouble for the trio aboard Blue Horizon – the motor did. As they began the crossing the motor cut out, leaving the vessel without any power.
Using the boat’s momentum, they made it over the first wave that threatened to capsize them.
Robert tried to restart the engine but it wouldn’t fire. They didn’t make it over the next wave.
“It rolled us,” Robert said.
He and his friends ended up in the water but, being an experienced skipper, Robert remained calm.
“It sort of happens too quick for you to be scared … you’ve got to keep your head.”
Once in the water, they had no way of communicating with Coastguard. While the three had their cellphones with them, they were useless underwater, and the boat’s radio was at the other end of the capsized boat.
Their only solace was that Coastguard was expecting to hear from them. Robert knew Coastguard would eventually realise the bar crossing hadn’t gone to plan and would activate a rescue response. But until help arrived, they would have to rely on their lifejackets to keep them afloat.
This proved difficult. The waves along the bar were rough and the undertow was strong. To make matters worse, one of Robert’s legs was badly cut by the boat’s sharp railings, and his mate was panicking in the surf.
With Coastguard coming soon, Robert got his mates to swim out to the hull of the boat. It was still floating and somehow had anchored to the ground out in the calmer waters.
They climbed on top of the hull and that was where a jetskier found them. The skier took Robert’s friends to shore, leaving Robert to wait for Coastguard and Raglan Surf Life Saving Club.
Eventually, soaked and exhausted, Robert was hauled onto a rescue boat and brought ashore. He was grateful for the organisations which helped them – Coastguard and Raglan Surf Life Saving Club – as well as the jetskier who saved his friends.
“I never got to thank the guy on the jetski, but I was able to thank the others.”
Robert said it’s important to know what you’re doing when crossing bars.
“Make sure you do a bar course or go with someone who knows what they’re doing and has been over it before. I would never take my boat over a bar I don’t know.”
Most of all, Robert was glad he and his friends wore their lifejackets that day. The three of them wouldn’t have survived without them.
“We were really lucky, the lifejackets played a big part.”
Off the deep end
It was the middle of winter, June 2022 when Jim*, 45, was invited to take his friend and their visiting parents out on his boat near Napier.
The water was calm and the sun was shining, which made excellent conditions for a boat ride in the off-season.
Getting ready that morning, Jim took extra care to put a belt on – something he didn’t realise would help save his life later in the day.
Jim made sure everyone on board was wearing lifejackets and gave ones with neck support to his most vulnerable passengers – his friend’s parents. They didn’t speak a lot of English, were much older, and Jim suspected they didn’t know how to swim.
Jim adjusted the lifejackets to fit his passengers properly because “you’ve gotta be careful with boats – it’s not like the movies, they can really bite you”.
The group had fun out on the water. Jim showed his passengers, some of whom had never been on a small powerboat, how the boat moved and turned.
After making sure everyone was seated on the boat, Jim looked ahead and realised they were about to run into their own wake. He slowed the boat down, but he didn’t realise that the passengers in the back had moved.
The passengers had stood up, trying to get a better view. The weight distribution on the wide, flat boat became dangerous, and it couldn’t handle the oncoming wake.
It tipped some of the passengers out one side of the boat, and then splashed down on the other, filling the hull with water. Before long, the boat had capsized.
After the initial scramble, Jim checked on everyone. Those who couldn’t swim were floating on their backs, sunglasses still perched on their heads.
“It was stunning how well the lifejackets worked,” Jim said.
But there was someone missing. One of the passengers was caught under the capsized boat. Jim would have to swim under the boat to retrieve the passenger.
This was risky. The boat was moving with the waves and Jim was exposed to debris and parts of the boat that could seriously injure him. He also risked being trapped under the boat himself. But the alternative would mean even more danger for the trapped passenger, and possibly, tragedy.
Jim dove under the water and flailed around for the trapped passenger, but couldn’t see or feel much. He tried to avoid diving directly under the boat, and luck prevailed when his hand brushed the trapped passenger’s leg.
Jim, with the help of another passenger, dragged the trapped person down and then out, making sure to avoid injury. The passenger emerged from under the capsized vessel, soaked but relieved, and importantly, safe.
After the successful rescue, he got everyone to huddle together to make sure no one was left behind.
The coast was about 300m away. Jim thought better of swimming to the coast – although it wasn’t very far, the distance can tire you out quickly, leaving you susceptible to cramps, exhaustion and drowning.
Instead, he tried to signal at people on the shore using his hands. They noticed the waving, but Jim couldn’t be sure they would alert someone.
By a stroke of luck, Jim, who usually stored his PLB on the dashboard of the boat, decided it was better off in his left breast pocket. It was still dry and easily accessible, so he activated it.
By this time, the reality of what had happened really started to set in. The most pressing concern for the passengers was the temperature of the water. They had been floating for almost 20 minutes. It was cold, and they soon began shivering.
“Their teeth were chattering … they had blue lips.”
As hypothermia took hold, a nearby boat arrived.
The rescuer helped the most vulnerable into the boat, but it wasn’t an easy task. Jim helped by using his feet to push the passengers up onto the boat.
When Jim’s time came to be rescued, there was no one else in the water to push him aboard, and the elderly on the boat were in no state to help. Jim remembered his belt. The rescuer used it like a harness, grabbed Jim by the belt and pulled him up.
A ferry took Jim and his passengers back to shore, where Police and an ambulance were waiting. On the way to hospital, the group had to strip off their soaking clothes and bundle up with blankets and hot water bottles.
After three or four hours in the emergency room, Jim said everyone got home okay and – more importantly – alive.
It’s too dangerous to go out boating and not take a PLB, Jim said. And without the lifejackets, the situation would have been very different.
“Those older people would have drowned.”
*Details have been changed to protect privacy
Between a rock and a hard place
John, 57, was in the process of getting back on the proverbial horse. He’d been an experienced climber for years before he took a 20-year break. He decided to start slowly, moving from easier walks to more complex climbs so he could ease his way back into the hobby he loved.
On 10 April 2022, he began the next phase of his plan: climbing Mt Rolleston in Arthur’s Pass National Park.
He set off alone. For John, being alone meant that he could go at his own pace and making decisions, like when to take break, would be easier. Besides, he had climbed it before, and remembered the terrain.
However, once he began his climb, it became clear his memory was foggier than he’d thought. The climbing was more like scrambling and soon he realised that he hadn’t really brought any gear appropriate for the situation. He had ice axes and crampons but wasn't sure if he felt up to using them.
He kept pushing on despite the problems, and eventually made his way 80m from the top of the 2275m summit.
Above him was a ledge of large rocks. The track ahead was steep, and he didn’t feel like he could climb any higher. Below him were the slippery slopes he’d scrambled up.
Traversing back down would be like sliding around on marbles.
“I sort of got myself into a situation where I couldn’t go up safely, and I didn’t feel confident enough to go down.”
With no way forward and a risky journey back, John settled down on the ledge and pulled out a personal locator beacon (PLB). He’d purchased it a week before the climbing trip, on the insistence of family members who were concerned about his safety should the worst happen.
“It was very fortuitous timing.”
After considering whether it was the right decision, John activated the PLB. Within five minutes of activation, John was contacted on his phone by the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ).
“I was lucky I was up high enough to have reception,” John said. If he had been any lower, it was likely he wouldn’t have been able to use his phone to keep in contact with anyone.
RCCNZ, the organisation that responds to PLB activations in New Zealand, despatched a helicopter from Greymouth to scope out the scene. Though the weather was fine, often it’s windy and cloudy at higher elevations. This made it difficult for the helicopter to see John as the sun began to dip below the horizon.
That aside, John was in a very precarious position for the helicopter to access, and probably couldn’t be rescued that night.
He was able to use the strobe light function on his PLB to let the helicopter know he was there, and then his first hope for rescue flew away.
John hunkered down to spend the night on the slope. He had enough supplies to survive but not much in the way of comfort or extra warmth.
With his feet wedged between two rocks for leverage, he attempted to get some rest. It was quite difficult because it was steep, he was on an angle and he was lying on rock and debris.
“I felt really apprehensive. I got to know every single rock underneath me, digging into my back.”
John persevered until the next morning, when the helicopter would be able to see him better. The helicopter made its way through fog to get a look at John, but the pilot said John was in an unstable location and wouldn’t be able to be winched out.
Instead, RCCNZ called in the Alpine Cliff Rescue (ACR) team, a specialist search and rescue team that deals with incidents above the snow line and on steep terrain. The team would be able to climb up to help get John down.
With his phone battery quickly dwindling, the ACR team finally reached him after hours of climbing. They strapped him into a harness and helped him back down the cliff face.
“They made me feel very safe,” John said. They climbed down to a snow field just below the mist in the valley, and then the helicopter took them the rest of the way.
“I was very lucky. It was a well-oiled rescue machine … very efficient.”
John was a bit shaken and felt slightly embarrassed, but he knew he did the right thing. Everyone has a natural fear of feeling stupid, and pride can get in the way of your safety, he said.
John believes it’s smart to go climbing with others. Even though decision-making is easier on your own, in the event of an emergency it would be helpful to have someone else there to activate a PLB or call for help if you were unable to.
Now, he doesn’t climb without his personal locator beacon.
“RCCNZ probably prefer to be called out for a live rescue than to try and find a body somewhere.”
Lifejackets and personal locator beacons are key pieces of equipment if you’re going to enjoy your water or land-based recreational activity and return home safely. But there are a few other safety tips you’ll need to know before you set out, says Matt Wood, Maritime NZ’s principal adviser (recreational craft).
“Every time you go on the water, follow the boating safety code,” he says.
- Wear your lifejacket.
- Take at least two waterproof ways to call for help.
- Check the marine weather forecast.
- Avoid alcohol.
- The skipper is responsible for the safety of everyone on board and cannot expose other water users to unnecessary risk.
The land safety code should guide your land-based adventures too.
- Choose the right trip for you.
- Understand the weather.
- Pack warm clothes and extra food.
- Share your plans and take ways to get help.
- Take care of yourself and each other.