Safety equipment salesmen have a standard throwaway line: 'If your life’s worth $20 then buy a life jacket.' But, in reality, any lifejacket is better than none at all.
A National Marine Safety Committee (NMSC) study some years ago found that people who survived a boating incident were more than twice as likely to have been wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) compared to those who died.
It concluded that if PFD usage increased to 50 per cent, at least two-three lives could be saved nationally each year.
For all that, when it comes to lifejacket usage and legislation across Australia’s State borders it’s apparent that one size doesn’t fit all.
The marine authorities in South Australia and Western Australian prefer recommendation over regulation, whereas Tasmania and NSW have arguably the toughest laws of all.
Most insist that boats carry a lifejacket per person. They generally must also be worn at all times by personal watercraft riders and passengers, people being towed, and canoeists and kayakers.
Really, it’s the skipper who should take ultimate responsibility, using prevailing conditions as the basis for their decision making.
It is well documented that lifejackets can greatly increase survival chances in cold water as the wearer can prolong the onset of hypothermia. They make absolute sense too when crossing ocean bars or in rough conditions.
The laws as they apply to recreational powerboats are as follows:
Lifejackets are compulsory for children under 12, anyone boating alone, or at night when in a boat less than 4.8 metres, and for everyone on board a boat less than 4.8 metres when on alpine waters or offshore.
It is compulsory to wear a lifejacket when crossing a coastal bar in an open boat that is less than 4.8 metres in length and, if you are under the age of 12, in an open boat that is less than 4.8 metres in length while it is underway.
All occupants of the power-driven vessels up to and including 4.8 metres in length and personal watercraft are required to wear a PFD when underway and when in an open area of the vessel.
Children under the age of 10 must wear a PFD at all times on any vessel when under way and they are in an open area of the vessel.
At times of heightened risk all occupants of vessels greater than 4.8 metres and less than 12 metres must don a jacket.
Definitions of heightened risk include:
When the vessel is crossing or attempting to cross an ocean bar or designated hazardous area.
When the vessel is being operated by a person who is alone.
When being operated at night (commencing one hour after sunset and ending one hour before sunrise) or in periods of restricted visibility.
When there is significant likelihood that the vessel may capsize or be swamped by waves or the occupants of the vessel may fall overboard or be forced to enter the water.
When the vessel is operating in an area where: a gale warning, storm warning, severe thunderstorm warning or severe weather warning issued by the Bureau of Meteorology is current.
Marine and Safety Tasmania (MAST) has made it compulsory for all people in recreational and commercial boats less than six metres in length to wear lifejackets while under power. Children younger than 12 must wear a jacket on boats of any length while moving.
The only exception is when the occupants are inside a deckhouse, cabin or secure enclosure.
MAST says that wearing, rather than stowing, a lifejacket means a safer working environment for commercial operators, many of whom had already adopted the policy.
The authority’s website highlights National Marine Safety Committee (NMSC) recommendations to wear lifejackets in the following circumstances:
At the first sign of bad weather.
Between sunset and sunrise or during restricted visibility.
When operating in unfamiliar waters.
When operating with a following sea.
When boating alone (this is especially recommended).
At all times on children under 10 years.
If you are a poor swimmer.
It is compulsory for PWCs and rowboats/canoes etc and strongly recommended for other vessels. Otherwise boats only have to carry a PFD1 when operating on unprotected waters.
Well-known yachtsman and cruiser owner Marcus Blackmore wrote to powerboat-world.com after a recent editorial about lifejacket use.
Having been a board member, ministerial advisor and advisor to the Chief Executive of NSW Maritime and the National Marine Safety Committee he feels it’s too easy and politically safe for the bureaucracy to over-react to boating fatalities and subsequent Coroner's reports.
He said that by introducing restrictive legislation, it seriously impacts all recreational boaties’ enjoyment.
'I firmly believe that NSW Maritime lifejacket laws have achieved a very good balance between safety and recreational boaters’ enjoyment of our waterways,' Blackmore said.
'Victoria and Tasmania, driven more by political imperative, have more restrictive legislation despite persistent calls to our State Maritime Authorities for national standards to prevail.'
He added it was also very easy for boaties to criticise politicians and bureaucrats, whereas it behoves us to also applaud their efforts when they make decisions that makes our boating safer.