Communications on the Water


Approaching Safer Boating Week (12-19 October), Nz Underwater and its partners are emphasising safe and responsible boating practices, including ensuring ample communication resources when on the water.

Approaching Safer Boating Week (12-19 October), NZ Underwater and its partners are emphasising safe and responsible boating practices, including ensuring ample communication resources when on the water.

Nobody likes to plan for the worst, but if you find yourself in an emergency situation, that planning may be the difference between life and death for you and your boating fellows.

VHF radios, distress beacons, and flares, are incredibly useful tools in an emergency, but knowing how and when to use them is essential.

Take a VHF radio

Make sure you take reliable communications devices to call for help, should you need it.

Maritime NZ warns that cellphones are 'fair weather friends'. While they can be useful for checking the weather, calling friends, and using marine apps, they are unreliable when communicate with rescue vessels, or provide ship to ship safety communications. Locating a cellphone caller can be difficult, and if you don't know precisely where you are, your rescuers will have difficulty finding you on the water.

In addition, there are definite watertightness issues with cellphones, which (in a storm) might be just when you need them.

With a VHF radio, calls can be received by Maritime NZ, the Coastguard and by vessels which may be in a position to help you right away. A VHF marine radio also helps ensure that you get storm warnings and other urgent marine information broadcasts.

Maritime NZ recommends a VHF radio as your first communication in an emergency. In the right conditions, even a portable VHF radio can give you up to 50km of coverage, and on Channel 16 a trained operator will take your emergency call within one minute and begin coordinating your rescue.

To download a list of the VHF channels, and for more recommendations about VHF radios (including getting a call sign and taking a course), go to the Maritime NZ website here.

Distress beacons for emergencies

Maritime NZ recommends a distress beacon as most effective when you need help in an emergency. They are one of the most reliable ways of signalling your need of help.


New Zealand has rugged landscape and changeable weather which makes it interesting to explore. But you can also get into trouble quickly, and not all alert tools are suitable for all situations.

Although they all work in the same way, different beacons are designed for use in different environments. There are three types of beacons:

  • EPIRBs (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) are best for boats, ships and other activities on water
  • PLBs (personal locator beacon) are for those tramping, climbing, hunting and travelling to remote locations. If being used for paddling or small water craft, they need to be a type that can float and operate in water.
  • ELTs (emergency locator transmitter) are only for aircraft

If you accidentally activate your beacon, phone RCCNZ immediately. This will ensure a search and rescue operation is nto launched needlessly.

If you are unable to contact RCCNZ immediately, switch off the beacon and make contact as soon as you are able to. There is no penalty for accidental activation.

Old or obsolete beacons need to be disposed of carefully, to ensure they are not set off by accident. A lot of time and money has been spent on search operations to dig beacons out of rubbish tips.

Disconnect the battery and dispose of the beacon according to local regulations, as many beacons contain hazardous materials. The names of distributors who dispose of old beacons can be found here.

To read more about getting or registering a beacon, or learning how to use one, see the Maritime NZ website here.

And for more info about marine VHF radio call signs, and registering for yours', go to the website here.

Appropriate distress flare use

Flares are a good means of communicating distress, or your location, when out of water, if you can use them safely and effectively.

When lit, they produce an intense bright red flame or an orange plume of smoke which are highly visible from the air and on the sea, making it easier for rescuers to spot you.

They are only useful when seen by someone who can give help or alert others and because each flare only burns for a short time, you should try to maximise the chances of the flare being seen.

Orange smoke flares are only effective for daytime use.

Red handheld flares are effective during the day and night as they are very bright, burn for up to 60 seconds and are visible from aircraft.

Red parachute or rocket flares are capable of attracting attention in daylight (up to 10 nautical miles or approx. 18.5km) and at night (up to 40nm or 74km). The flare is launched up to 300m and burns for 40-60 seconds as it decends slowly under a parachute.

Make sure you have read and understood the firing instructions ahead of time, as you will not be able to read them in a distress situation at night.

Ensure the flares are stored in a waterproof container or in a dry area below deck, and that everyone knows where they are and how to use them.


Check the expiry date of your flares regularly and be sure to replace them before they expire. Expired flares must be disposed of appropriately by handing them in to:

  • your local police station
  • harbour police
  • sea rescue headquarters
  • the Ministry of Defence
  • a life raft service station

Do not incinerate old flares or put them in the rubbish. If they ignite, they can cause firest, injuries or burns.

For more information on how to fire (ignite) a flare, or about flare demonstrations around the country, please visit the Maritime NZ website here.

This information has been obtained from Maritime NZ in association with Safer Boating Week.

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