Raising the alarm
Seasoned boaters may think themselves infallible, but anyone can find themselves in sudden difficulty – so you don't want to only start thinking about what to do in an emergency in the heat of the moment.
Basic prep is essential - keep your motor and vessel well serviced, a simple breakdown can escalate quickly into an emergency.
GPS coupled with plotters and other electronics are fantastic when they work. Always carry a magnetic compass and know how to use it to get a bearing from a geographic or man-made feature.
All recreational vessels heading out more than two nautical miles from the coast are required to carry an approved 406 Mhz emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). However, it is recommended that all vessels carry a GPS-enabled EPIRB.
Have your safety equipment in a waterproof (and preferably buoyant) safety grab bag in an easily accessible position on the boat, not stuffed into the bow locker.
Paddlers may prefer to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) because they are smaller. PLBs should be attached to the paddler's lifejacket so they can be kept upright and out of the water if you fall in. PLBs are not considered a substitute for EPIRBs when adhering to State marine carriage regulations.
Make sure your beacon is registered with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). Registration is free, and easy to do by phone on 1800 406 406, or online at beacons.amsa.gov.au. It means that when you press the button in an emergency the details of your vessel (you can even upload a photo of it – a great help to rescuers so they know what they're looking for) and who to contact to know what your trip plans were, are immediately available to rescue agencies.
Call for help
Maritime Safety Victoria recommends boaters carry other waterproof ways of alerting emergency services, in addition to an EPIRB.
VHF marine radio
In Victoria, VHF and HF emergency radio traffic is monitored and recorded by Marine Radio Victoria (MRV) 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
MRV covers the Victorian coastline, up to 20 nautical miles from the coast on the VHF emergency channels and out to 200 miles for the HF emergency frequencies.
To request a VHF marine radio channels sticker, send an email with your postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep your mobile phone in a waterproof case - check it works with the case on and that you can use the phone when the container is wet and cold.
Always check the weather forecast for your trip and the trend - will it be getting better or worse? Be prepared to make the decision not to go out or to return to shore early if conditions are not suitable for you or your boat.
You should know your position at all times, and lower your anchor if it's safe to do so.
Make your distress call early - It may be difficult or impossible to make a distress call later.
- Activate your EPIRB and be ready to take it overboard with you. Make sure it is attached to you by its lanyard, and floats freely away from other objects.
- By radio - VHF channel 16, alternate 67.
- By phone - call 000, listen carefully to the scripted questions and answer each briefly and slowly. You will be asked where you are. Give your position in latitude and longitude (know how to find it on your phone) or by reference to geographic features (a compass can help here).
Example of a distress call
- MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY
- (Station calling x3) THIS IS MAPLE MS742, MAPLE MS742, MAPLE MS742
- (Name/call sign) MAPLE MS742
- (Position) 5 NAUTICAL MILES SOUTH OF FAWKNER BEACON
- (Nature of distress) SWAMPED AND SINKING. ESTIMATE FURTHER 10 MINUTES AFLOAT
- (Other information) SEVEN METRE HALF CAB WHITE HULL WITH BLUE AWNING
- (If time permits) THREE PERSONS ON BOARD, EPIRB ACTIVATED, OVER
If no answer is received, repeat the distress call and message on the other distress frequencies or any other available frequency on which help might be obtained.
Prepare flares and other means of getting the attention of potential rescuers when you can see or hear them.
If your vessel capsizes and you are unable to right the vessel, abandon it only as a last resort. Stay close to the vessel to improve your chances of being seen by rescuers.
Do not remove your lifejacket, and if you are in the water, stay with your boating companions if you're not alone. Do not try to swim ashore unless it is very close and a suitable landing place exists. Distances can be deceptive.
Your vessel is easier to spot in the water than a person alone. Make your vessel as visible as possible - the faster you are seen, the faster you'll be rescued. An orange "V" sheet is good shelter as well as being highly visible.