The rescue that wasn’t

A helicopter was airborne and a yacht heading to the rescue of a family fishing group in a runabout in trouble on the Firth of Thames this morning – but the group was actually arriving safely back at the boat ramp.

The problem was none of their communications equipment – radio or cellphones – had been turned on during the trip.

The Rescue Coordination Centre NZ (RCCNZ) received a personal locator beacon activation alert at around 9am today and responded by alerting the Auckland rescue helicopter and asking a nearby yacht for assistance.

A father had taken his 16-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter fishing and their emergency contact – the mother of the family – advised they would all be wearing their lifejackets.

So far, so good, but it appears the beacon had actually activated as the result of either a fault or being inadvertently switched on. With no means of contacting the group, RCCNZ began a search and rescue operation.

“They had a VHF radio and cellphones but none of these were turned on,” Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator Ramon Davis says. “We couldn’t contact them so treated it as a genuine distress situation.

“By registering the beacon and providing an emergency contact they’ve done the right thing, but because the radio wasn’t turned on we couldn’t reach them – and they wouldn’t have been able to respond to a radio distress call from another vessel.”

Ramon says a call home from the boat ramp brought the operation to an end, shortly before 10am, but not before the helicopter had been flying for several minutes.

“It is understandable that people would miss the small flashing light on the beacon which shows it is activated, but this is an example of the need to ensure you have adequate means of communication when you are out on the water,” he said.

“The thing people need to know is that if we get a beacon activation we will start a SAR operation, unless we have absolute confirmation that there is no emergency. If a beacon is turned on accidentally, simply turning it off will not stop us acting on the signal – we need to know that people are safe before we take that step.”

It is a legal requirement to register a distress beacon.

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