With the global coronavirus pandemic all but ruling out overseas travel this holiday season, boat sales have soared and record numbers of Kiwis are hitting the ocean, lakes, and rivers. But with the increased water activity, authorities are even more desperate than ever to get their safety messages across. Herald journalist Kurt Bayer reports.
Boat ramps can be stressful places. Backing the trailer, wind whipping up choppy waves that crash the boat against the jetty.
And suddenly, the realisation that a crucial piece of equipment – enough lifejackets, VHF radio, cellphone – has been left behind. Too late now, she'll be right.
Baz Kirk sees it all.
Official statistics show that on average over the last decade, 18 New Zealanders die every year in recreational fatal boating accidents.
Two-thirds of those deaths could have been prevented by simply wearing a lifejacket.
"There's no hidden secrets," Kirk says, when talking about how to stay safe on the water.
"If you do it right, play the game safely, then the environment you're going in to is an incredibly fun place to be.
"It's all just common sense."
International travel used to be the boating market's biggest competitor.
But now with that on hold for the foreseeable future, boating is taking off.
While boat sales dropped 95 per cent during last April to June, the numbers since have doubled compared to 2019 and "more than compensated for the earlier drop", according to executive director of the NZ Marine Industry Association, Peter Busfield.
"Worldwide, and including New Zealand, boating participation over the past few months has increased," he says.
"This is due to people valuing the special times with family and friends on their boat – be it cruising to an island beach, fishing, sailing or just getting out on the water for some peace and quiet in natural surroundings."
The record boat sales have also seen a spike in the number of apprenticeships signed-up - 170 in the four months to November 2020 compared with 40 in the same period a year ago.
A recent survey by tourism booking and information platform, Campable, found 58 per cent of Kiwis felt this summer presented a better opportunity to explore their own backyard than ever before.
Bookings for camping grounds are up and Maritime NZ and Coastguard are bracing themselves for a busy festive season as Kiwis flock to the water.
Even before Covid-19, around half of all New Zealanders were involved in recreational boating, using an increasingly diverse array of water craft.
Paddling now has the highest level of participation, overtaking power boating.
"Kiwis are getting back to what Kiwis used to do prior to going on international travel – boating and camping and that's coming back to the fore now," Kirk says.
"But with that brings a lot of challenges especially for those people who haven't been boating for a long time or new people getting into boating, raising concerns and risks for regulators and rescue coordination centres like Coastguard, purely because of the potential responses that may happen through that holiday period."
Amanda Kerr, Nelson's deputy harbourmaster and ambassador for the New Zealand Water Safety Forum, says there is a huge and growing paddle board population in Nelson.
On a good summer's day there can be as many as 200 stand-up paddlers out on the water, Kerr says.
"But still some are going out unprepared – they don't check the weather, they may not have appropriate clothing," she says.
"It can be just as dangerous as other forms of boating; if they fall off they can get cold quickly and if the tide and weather turn against them they invariably need rescuing."
Coastguard is expecting a bumper season after experiencing its busiest ever Labour Weekend, where the northern region alone, which stretches from Raglan across to Thames, and everywhere north of that, saw 88 callouts in three days.
And it was no anomaly. Coastguard has been seeing a marked increase in general callouts in recent times, especially in serious incidents where lives are in danger.
Coastguard head of operations Rob McCaw is concerned that newcomers to the water – people who've just bought boats or other watercraft – won't take the proper safety precautions or have the proper knowledge.
As a result, a real push as gone on Coastguard's boating courses over the last few months. Record numbers of boatmasters have qualified and more operational crew members are getting opportunities for training.
The 'No Excuses' on-water compliance campaign which has seen 18 harbourmasters across the country join forces with Maritime NZ staff to check boaties' compliance with the boating safety code and local bylaws, including lifejacket wearing and safe speed, will also be in action.
Harbourmasters and Maritime NZ staff will be out monitoring waterways on five random days in each region. They began on October 10 and will continue until March 31.
They say they'll be taking "a firm approach" to anyone breaching the rules, especially where safety of other water users is put at risk.
Last year, they interacted with more than 4000 boaties – a record which is expected to be broken again this boating season.
Maritime NZ's annual survey of recreational boaties found that while most boaties (84 per cent) rate safety as important, it found there is still work to be done to ensure people stay safe.
An alarming 20 per cent still reported that they wear a lifejacket either never, not very often, or only some of the time.
One in four reported that they never, not every often, or only some of the time check the marine or mountain forecast before going out on the water.
The latest Maritime NZ safety drive through its Safer Boating forum is a summer campaign called, 'What's your plan?'
It's designed to prepare boaties to make sure they have got their boats and equipment maintained and prepared before they go on the water.
"We want people thinking about what they are doing before they even get to the boat ramp," says Kirk.
"A lot of times we see people get to the boat ramp, realise they've forgotten something but they go anyway, purely because it's a bit of a mission to go back and get stuff.
"Do the right thing. Think about what you're doing, where you're going, and how long for."
Being prepared is key, Kirk says.
Make sure your boat, kayak or stand-up paddleboard is appropriate for the activity you plan to do.
Wear lifejackets – don't just take them with you. And the Coastguard is currently offering a lifejacket exchange programme called 'Old For New' where old lifejackets can be swapped for brand new, professional-standard ones for a small fee.
Boaties are also being encouraged to get some local knowledge before they venture out, by checking the marine weather forecasts and talking to harbourmasters, Coastguard, or boating clubs about what happens in that specific area.
Thinking "this place is safe" is when people get complacent, Maritime NZ says, and can result in tragic outcomes.
Skippers are also being reminded that they are legally responsible for the safety of the boat and everyone on board.
Ex-naval commander McCaw agrees that common sense and preparation are key, while everyone should be aware of the boating safety code.
"It's pretty simple stuff," he says, urging people to download the free Coastguard app which features marine weather forecasts, tides, and boating tips.
"We have a little saying: If in doubt, don't go out. It's as simple as that. If you've got a feeling in your water that it looks a bit gnarly, or you've not been out in conditions like that before, then don't."
And while alcohol is not prohibited on boats, Maritime NZ is urging people to "take a common sense approach".
"Go out there, have a good day, catch some fish, come home, get the barbie going, and have a few beers then," Kirk says.
"That's the ultimate way to do it.
"One boating fatality is one boating fatality too many. Ideally, there would be no boating fatalities."
New Zealand's recreational fatal boating statistics:
2020: 14 (as at December 8)
-Source: Maritime NZ
Five key messages:
* Wear your lifejacket
* Take two waterproof ways to call for help
* Check the marine weather forecast
* Avoid alcohol
* Be a responsible skipper
-Source: Maritime NZ