Marine Rescue Tower in Ballina.
Marine Rescue Tower in Ballina. Marc Stapelberg

STRANDED: Boatie's blunders a reminder to all

AN INCIDENT in which a man and his dog were bobbing around off the coast of Ballina in a 4.6m vessel for four hours in the dark is a lesson in safety to all boaties.

Peter Caldwell, from Wodonga on the Victorian-NSW border, was visiting Ballina when he decided to go offshore fishing on Thursday, August 17.

While returning to the bar at about 5pm, his boat's outboard engine failed due to what he claims was "dirty fuel”, and he was left stranded.

He was eventually picked up by the Ballina Jet Boat Rescue Service after 9pm in deteriorating sea conditions.

While Mr Caldwell is grateful for being rescued, with his dog and boat, he said he was frustrated that he wasn't picked up earlier when he estimates he was only 200m off Lighthouse Beach in view of the Marine Rescue tower.

But, and they are some very big buts, he admitted: the marine radio he had on board wasn't working, and he hadn't checked it; he didn't have his mobile phone with him; and he hadn't let anyone know what time he was due back.

He also assumed that his signal of the mayday call SOS in Morse code using his torch - three short flashes followed by three long flashes and three short flashes again - was received and understood by someone on the beach who he claimed signalled back with a flash of light.

He then waited in his boat with his dog until after 8.30pm before he set off his first flare - more than two hours after his engine broke down.

He set a second flare off at about 9pm, but the Ballina Jet Boat Rescue arrived about 10 minutes after, which meant the first flare had been reported.

His excuse for not checking his radio, he said, was that he "was only going around the corner - what can go wrong? Well, a lot can go wrong”.

A Marine Rescue spokesperson said the Ballina tower is not staffed overnight, but radio calls are monitored in Sydney.

The spokesperson said the unit's crew did respond to the incident after the first flare was reported to police, but the crew was stood down when notified the Ballina Jet Boat Rescue crew was on the way. 

"This incident is a good example of why boaters need to carry a working VHF radio and mobile phone on board so they can quickly summon help in an emergency,” the spokesperson said.

"Boaters are also advised to log on with their local Marine Rescue unit before heading out, stating their destination, expected return time, the number of people on board and contact details.

"Our radio operators will be able to advise whether the call is coming through loud and clear.

"In an emergency, boaters should always call for help on VHF Channel 16 and if in mobile range, also call Triple Zero.”  

The NSW Police Marine Area Command is responsible for tasking rescue services to respond to emergencies on NSW waters.

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