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Irresponsible activation of EPIRBs - bush walkers and sailors

by Nancy Knudsen on 15 Jun 2013
I guess you would have to agree there was a valid reason to let off the EPIRB in this case. Photo by US Coast Guard, incident subject of a book by Michael Tougias, ’’A Storm too Soon’’ .. .
In a case that, to my knowledge has not been replicated in the sailing world, the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) launched an investigation into claims that a bush walker had activated the beacon because he was running late and wanted a ride back to his car. It is an interesting case for the sailor because of multiple opinions among the sailing fraternity that often sailors activate their beacon merely because they are frightened. The incident occurred in February this year, and the bush walker has just been cleared of the charge of misuse. The bush walker, from Nelson on the South Island of New Zealand, has dodged a hefty fine after, it was found, wrongly being accused of misusing a personal locator beacon while tramping on the West Coast in February. Ben Winnubst, 67, activated the beacon on the third day of a five-day off-track 'tramp' in the Hooker Wilderness Area, south Westland. He told Solid Energy rescue helicopter's crew who airlifted him out that he was struggling with the challenging terrain and had underestimated the time it would take him to tramp out. In February after the incident, Maritime New Zealand said a tramper 'who appears to have activated his personal locator beacon simply because he was running late and wanted a ride to his car wasted time, taxpayers' money, and potentially put others at risk'. Maritime New Zealand's general manager of safety and response services, Nigel Clifford, said the man, who had written books about tramping, had now agreed to plan future expeditions more carefully to avoid underestimating the difficulty of terrain. No further action would be taken. 'If he had continued tramping, it was likely a search and rescue operation would have been initiated because he would have been overdue and the area's conditions would have made it difficult to find him,' Mr Clifford said. 'We certainly do not wish to discourage people from activating beacons when they are in distress but it is not a decision that should be taken lightly.' He reiterated the need for people to be prepared, saying beacons were not a substitute for good planning. 'People going into wilderness areas should be aware of weather forecasts and carry suitable communications equipment such as a mountain radio. Cellphones should not be relied upon.' At the time, Mr Clifford said the rescue of the tramper had cost $10,000 and tied up the helicopter for two and a half hours. Back to the sailing world, there are many cases where the crew have abandoned their boat but the boat, unaided, makes it to shore. In an iconic case about four years ago, also in New Zealand, the crew of a sailing boat who insisted on activating their emergency beacon against the wishes of the owner/skipper of the boat ended up paying for the rescue because of the outcry in New Zealand. The yacht, which had to be abandoned, washed up several months later on Australian shores. See http://www.sail-world.com/index_d.cfm?nid=56974!Sail-World_story. The question remains: When and how should officialdom step in in the case of potentially irresponsible, inexperienced or frightened cruising or racing sailors?
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