A search for a yacht earlier this year in North Island waters, prolonged by a muddled Mayday call, sported a price tag of more than $40k.
And with the idea of mandatory skipper licensing and boat registration nixed by the Ministry of Transport, boaties are encouraged to get educated via Day Skipper courses – for a much humbler fee of $170.
But people in danger should not be deterred from seeking help because of rescue costs, a Maritime NZ spokesman said.
"The focus internationally is on saving life – jurisdictions do not charge for search and rescue services so no-one delays making a Mayday call or activating a distress beacon because they fear financial cost."
The comments from Maritime NZ follow a large-scale 19-hour search and rescue operation launched by the Rescue Co-ordination Centre NZ (RCCNZ) to find the yacht SV Tribe on February 17.
The distressed skipper made a brief and partial Mayday via the emergency VHF channel around 6.30pm to report the yacht had taken on water and was sinking as it encountered eight-metre swells.
Five sea vessels, two helicopters, and three planes – with an additional helicopter and plane on standby – were brought in to comb waters around Waiheke Island and later off the coast of Pauanui, on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula.
Rescue efforts had been hampered by the Mayday call not including a yacht name or accurate location.
While multiple personnel searched for the elusive SV Tribe the skipper had used the yacht's motor to get out of the storm waters off the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula to calmer seas.
Then on February 18 around 2pm the yacht eventually turned up 150km away in Bream Bay, south of Whangārei, where the skipper phoned local police to ask if they were being looked for.
An enquiry into the incident by Maritime NZ determined the skipper should have cancelled the Mayday once safe but he lacked a thorough understanding of the distress channel, VHF channel 16.
The Maritime NZ compliance team maintained the Mayday call itself was warranted and said the crew had survived a very difficult situation. They took no further actions against the skipper.
The cost of the operation released to The Northern Advocate under the Official Information Act revealed more than $41,507 was spent trying to pinpoint the yacht's location.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) committed the HMNZ Te Kaha for a 17-hour period that incurred a $21,044 cost. A Royal New Zealand Air Force C130 Hercules was involved in the search for around 4.2 hours to the tune of $19,429 – the cost included marginal personnel costs, fuel, airport charges and other costs associated with the flight.
As a Seasprite helicopter and a P3 Orion – returning from a search and rescue mission in the Pacific – were on standby and not called out, no additional costs were incurred.
The running costs to maintain the NZDF's capabilities – including its search and rescue functions – are forecast each financial year and comes from baseline operational funding, annually funded within the Government's successive budgets.
Maritime NZ was only able to provide the cost of the fuel used by Coastguard vessels – around $1034 - for the 4.25 hours they were involved.
The price behind the involvement of Coastguard's Auckland Air Patrol aircraft was unavailable as it does not charge RCCNZ for costs related to search and rescue operations.
And finally, the price incurred by the two-hour involvement of both the Auckland Rescue Helicopter and the Philips Search and Rescue Trust helicopter was withheld for fear of evoking prejudice about their commercial positions.
A NZDF spokesman said it was difficult to compare the costs of different searches due to the varying scenarios and environments.
"Costs are not considered when a search is launched. An example is the NZDF costs in the search for missing Nelson trampers last year, which were $57,070 but involved a NH-90 helicopter."
In New Zealand last year, there were more than 1.5 million recreational boaties with more people aged between 25 and 34 using power boats over 6m.
Maritime NZ data revealed recreational boating fatalities average around 20 each year nationally. During 2020 there were no fatal recreational boating incidents in Northland.
In 59 per cent of fatal incidents, inadequate communication was a contributing factor as search and rescues were made more difficult.
Ministry of Transport economic regulation manager Tom Forster shot down the idea of a mandatory skipper licensing and registration scheme, saying it was unlikely to have a significant impact on accident numbers.
He said the standpoint was informed by the Review of the New Zealand Pleasure Boat Safety Strategy.
"While registration would be helpful for enforcement of navigation bylaws, this would do little to address the key risk factors responsible for most boating accidents and deaths."
Forster said resources were better spent instead tackling the four key risk factors identified by the Safer Boating Forum - failure to wear lifejackets, lack of communication, not checking the weather, and drinking alcohol.
Despite a lack of mandatory requirements in New Zealand, the skipper is legally responsible for the safety of the boat and everyone on board.
They are also responsible for complying with all the relevant maritime rules and regional bylaws – failure to do can lead to instant fines or prosecution.
Maritime NZ advocates that everyone using a recreational vessel should undergo training.
"Before any recreational boating activity, we recommend people undertake some form of boating education and understand the 'rules of the road on the water," a spokesman for Maritime NZ said.
People are encouraged to complete the Day Skipper, Boatmaster, and VHF courses run by Coastguard Boating Education found at www.boatingeducation.org.nz or www.maritimenz.govt.nz