How a well-planned adventure turned into a potential disaster

A disastrous outcome for two mates was averted thanks to a hired personal locater beacon (PLB), Maritime NZ Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ), the Canterbury Westpac Rescue Helicopter, and a local fishing vessel.

The mates – Andrew and Paul – launched an 11.5ft inflatable dinghy at Birdling’s Flat on 2 February, 2022. They planned to make a close-to-shore-trip around Banks Peninsula with an overnight stop at Hickory Bay before continuing to Charteris Bay. They wore full wetsuits and lifejackets and were equipped with a VHF radio, two cell phones, and a hired PLB. The weather was favourable and the trip was relatively smooth, until they headed around Pompey’s Pillar.

They were approximately 30 metres away from cliffs when the outboard motor prop became tangled with a piece of rope debris. When Andrew tried to clear the prop, larger waves and a gust of wind capsized the dinghy. He and Paul scrambled onto the overturned dinghy and tried unsuccessfully to paddle to shore. After several attempts they managed to flip the dingy upright.

Their two cell phones received no signal and their many Pan Pan Pan calls on Andrew's hand-held VHF radio went unanswered.

Despite efforts to row, the current and strong wind gusts thwarted them, pulling them further out to sea. They attempted to restart the engine but it showed no signs of life. As dusk approached, the pair realised they'd be harder to locate in the dark. That's when they decided to activate the PLB.

RCCNZ called Paul’s wife to let her know the PLB had been activated and was relieved to hear both men were wearing wetsuits and lifejackets. RCCNZ called again to say a commercial fishing boat was over an hour away and was responding to Paul and Andrew’s mayday. RCCNZ sent the Westpac Rescue Helicopter to assess the situation.

Paul’s wife received a third call from RCCNZ assuring her that Paul and Andy were safe but unable to reach the shore alone. She then heard the helicopter was remaining close by until the fishing vessel arrived – which would be in approximately 30 minutes.

Due to the conditions, the fishing vessel had difficulty with visibility, so the helicopter flew above to guide them. Andrew communicated with the vessel via his VHF radio. RCCNZ then told Paul’s wife that both men and the dinghy had been successfully transferred to the fishing vessel and were en-route to Akaroa’s main wharf.

Without the PLB, none of these rescue services would have been triggered into action. A full 24 hours may have passed before the alarm was raised – when Andrew and Paul failed to arrive in Charteris Bay. Where would they have been by then? 

Because they were planning on staying close to the shore, Andrew and Paul had initially questioned whether it was necessary to hire a PLB. This was the first time they were equipped with one and thankfully it was strapped tightly around one of their waists.  Had it been stored among their gear, it probably would have been lost when the dinghy overturned. It’s a common mistake for users not to wear a PLB, and this can result in it getting lost during an accident.

Andrew and Paul can’t stress enough the importance of taking a PLB whenever you’re on the water or venturing into remote areas – both cell phones and a VHF radio were not enough to raise the alarm to get the help they needed. Always be prepared for the unexpected. $15 per day is a small price to pay when it could save your life.

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