Wayne Thompson is a NZ Herald reporter.

Big push for compulsory lifejackets

Two South Auckland local politicians want to reduce number of people drowning in small craft accidents

Pupils were taught how to swim while wearing a lifejacket as part of a nationwide water safety programme. Photo / Stuart Munro
Pupils were taught how to swim while wearing a lifejacket as part of a nationwide water safety programme. Photo / Stuart Munro

A push to make wearing lifejackets compulsory on the Waitemata Harbour to save lives is expected to be strongly opposed by boaties.

The drive is coming from two South Auckland local politicians who say too many people are drowning in accidents involving small craft. There are 100,000 boaties in the Auckland region.

Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board member Tunumafono Ava Fa'amoe said the board was concerned that drownings had continued despite the 2008 bylaw requiring lifejackets to be carried for everyone in small boats.

Nineteen boaties drowned in Auckland between 2008 and 2012, 83 per cent of them in boats under 6m.

Mr Fa'amoe said the board had hoped compulsory lifejacket wearing in vessels 6m and under would be approved for this summer but it now hoped it would be ready in time for Labour Weekend next year.

"Often people ask: 'Why can't you do something about the drownings?' and our community are saying 'We are - just give us the tool to empower us to look after our community to care for each other, where it counts'."

He was backed by Auckland councillor Alf Filipaina, who is also a Counties-Manukau police Pacific liaison officer.

He was called to the Mangere Bridge in May 2012 when Mr So'saia Paasi and his 7-year-old son Tio drowned when a dinghy capsized. Three other children were rescued from the cold swirling current.

"I have no doubt that had they been wearing lifejackets they would not have drowned."

Changes to local regulations are part of the review of the Navigation Safety Bylaw, which is due to go out for public comment early next year.

However, councillors think it is such a contentious and urgent matter that the lifejacket issue should be treated as a separate bylaw.

Councillors are expecting a huge amount of feedback on the topic, possibly matching, if not surpassing the bumper 10,000 submissions on last year's regional dog policy.

Council surveys show 35 per cent strongly supported compulsory wearing of lifejackets by all people in small boats while 44 per cent strongly opposed it.

Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter paramedic Karl Taylor, who also helped during the Mangere Bridge tragedy, said he supported the proposed measures as they could have made a difference to that rescue.

"If everyone was wearing lifejackets that day, they potentially could still be alive."

Richard Brown, of the Auckland Yachting and Boating Association, which represents 17,000 members in the region's yacht clubs, urged the council not to introduce a "rushed albeit well-meaning bylaw which will have little effect".

He said it was unreasonable to cover all types of small boats, at all times and in all sea conditions.

Rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) floated even when tipped upside down so wearing lifejackets should be left to the skipper's discretion, or be exempt on a boat doing less than 5 knots in sheltered waters during daylight.

Watersafe Auckland chief executive Sandy Harrop called for a separate bylaw on wearing lifejackets, saying the "changing face of Auckland was reflected in drowning statistics".

Other councils around the country have already introduced stricter bylaws, although they aren't often enforced - an issue that is yet to be addressed if the Auckland proposal was to go through.

Current rules

• Boats must carry lifejackets for everyone on board but they only have to be worn if the skipper deems it's necessary.

• Local authorities can impose stricter conditions.

• The Auckland Harbour Master's Office has issued 17 infringement notices this year for failure to comply with the current bylaw (wearing jackets on skipper's instructions or in dangerous conditions).

Could have been saved by a lifejacket

January 2013 - Tauranga skipper Timothy Robert Russell Mair, 52, drowned when his boat was swamped by a wave and then capsized by a second wave. A coroner this week ruled Mr Mair's death could have been avoided if he was wearing a lifejacket.

August 2012 - Leon Grant Scurrah, 49, of Lower Hutt, was fishing with a friend when their small boat capsized and quickly sank. Both men tried to swim to shore but Mr Scurrah did not make it. Neither of the men was wearing a lifejacket, despite these being stowed on the boat.

- NZ Herald

What do you think? Should lifejackets be mandatory in small boats? Email newsdesk@nzherald.co.nz.

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