Deaths at sea spark boaties warning
Pilbara water authorities are again urging skippers and their crews to follow boat safety advice after a worrying number of tragic incidents in regional waters during the past 18 months.
In late September, the Karratha community was shocked when local fisherman Norman Bale went missing on the water after leaving Karratha Back Beach to go crabbing in his small aluminium tinny.
An extensive water, land and air search recovered his boat and crabbing equipment but failed to find him after a week.
It followed the deaths of spearfishermen Matt Pennington and Lawrence Smith when their boat capsized near Mawby Island in January, and the sinking of commercial fishing trawler the Returner in Nickol Bay in July last year, killing three people.
North West water police regional operations manager Sergeant Scott Gillis said while the incidents appeared to be the result of misfortune rather than any particular trend, they served as a reminder of the importance of boat safety.
At the end of last month, the Department of Transport had checked about 500 vessels and issued 59 boating infringements in the Pilbara region, of which 29 were for a lack of appropriate safety equipment including flares and EPIRBs.
Eighteen infringements were issued for speeding and eight for unregistered vessels.
DoT northern regional director Sue Lannin said with boating conditions generally good yearround in the Pilbara, it was easy for people to fall into a sense of complacency when on the water, but they needed to be aware that conditions can change rapidly and if they do, the situation was more dangerous than on land because of the risk of drowning.
“They think something can’t happen to them, but in reality what’s happened proves that it can happen,” she said.
“People need to be aware that it could go wrong. You wouldn’t hop in an aeroplane and put your trust in the pilot if they hadn’t checked that everything was alright.”
One of the major environmental risks in Pilbara waters are the big tides, which are far larger than in the metropolitan area and can reach 4-5m.
The tides can pose problems even in getting into or out of otherwise sheltered areas because the ocean environment can change with them, with rocky outcrops becoming exposed when the tide goes down, for example, or leaving people stranded in creek beds.
“You don’t necessarily need to get capsized to die in a boat; you can get stuck in mud, and you’re going to be stuck in 40-degree heat,” Sgt Gillis said.
He also said skippers telling someone where they are going, when they expect to return, and notifying a rescue team as early as possible, even if they cancelled later, all went a long way to helping water police find them in the case of something going wrong.
The DoT recommends skippers go through a comprehensive onestop checklist of safety checks, available via its website, at least once a year to ensure their vessel and onboard equipment is in good working order for the specific conditions of the Pilbara area.
It provides a thorough overview of all boat motor, battery, trailer and safety equipment checks to ensure boats are well-equipped on the water.
Ms Lannin said it was a simple procedure that only needed doing once a year but could mean the difference between having a problem-free trip or easy rescue and getting caught in a tight situation.
Onboard drinking, better passenger awareness of safety equipment and properly operating trailers are also ongoing issues of concern for the marine authorities.
Sgt Gillis said when water police officers saw some people aboard boats continually flouting basic safety precautions and putting their own and others’ safety at risk, the dominant feeling was one of frustration.
“I wouldn’t want it on my conscience that because I didn’t check my gear, one of my friends has been injured or hurt.” “We can only do so much.” Ms Lannin also said that if the high risks of overlooking safety precautions still didn’t prompt some people to take care on the water, to think of the effects a tragic incident could have on others.
“It has a big impact on your whole community when something like this happens,” she said.
“People spend thousands of dollars servicing their fishing gear ... but they won’t spend the money to buy a decent set of flares that last you three or four years,” he said.
You can find the DoT BEST boat checklist at www.transport.wa.gov.au/imarine/aboutsafety-equipment.asp.
Department of Transport regional officers Lance Whitney and Tony Fitzpatrick and North West water police Sgt Scott Gillis are asking Pilbara skippers to follow safety guidelines on the water.