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‘Just Wear It’: new campaign aimed at encouraging Kiwis to wear life jackets

3 min read

Coastguard and Water Safety NZ believe it should be mandatory for everyone to wear a life jacket on vessels six metres and under while underway. Photo: Supplied

Complacency with wearing life jackets is contributing to high drowning rates in New Zealand, says Coastguard, and in response to the increasing number of preventable drownings on watercraft, the organisation, along with Water Safety New Zealand, is urging Kiwis to wear life jackets while on the water this summer.

Recent data from Water Safety New Zealand reveals that craft-related incidents contribute to 31% of recreational deaths.

In 2022, there were 29 drowning fatalities from watercraft and 21 of those weren’t wearing a life jacket. The number of drownings last year was 66% higher than compared with the 10-year average, Coastguard said.

Coastguard CEO, Callum Gillespie, expressed deep concern: “A life jacket has never ruined a day on the water, but not wearing one has destroyed many lives. Drownings are a devastating event for whānau, family and friends and for our incredible volunteers who are on the frontline. These tragic deaths leave a long-lasting impact on our communities.

“We have a simple message for all watercraft users, whether you’re on a boat, yacht, kayak, jet ski, SUP – whatever your waka – ‘Just Wear It’.”

Despite the sobering statistics, research shows more than a quarter (27%) of boaties surveyed aren’t ensuring everyone onboard has a life jacket that fits them, and while 86% of children are wearing a correctly fitting life jacket, a third of adults (33%) are not wearing them the entire time they’re on the water, said Coastguard.

The reasons cited for not wearing life jackets vary, with 41% saying they’re not concerned with the potential for drownings to occur, 46% saying their boat/vessel can handle rough conditions OK, and a third (33%) saying that wearing life jackets is inconvenient and uncomfortable. A further 33% say they simply did not want to, and a quarter say it’s too expensive to buy more life jackets.  

Water Safety NZ statistics suggest that 20% of boaties don’t check weather conditions before venturing out on the water. A third (30%) of New Zealanders are unable to swim or are weak swimmers, and when it comes to swimming in the ocean, that increases to 44% unable to swim or consider themselves weak swimmers.

According to Coastguard, in the event of unexpectedly entering the water, people may have to tread water for at least 40 minutes before help arrives.

“This could be hours in more remote locations. Without a life jacket, this is incredibly difficult and drastically reduces your chance of survival.

“This was the case for a Nelson family of four whose boat was swamped by two massive waves. With their life jackets on, they swam for over an hour to rocks after being unable to raise an alarm, and despite briefly losing sight of each other in the challenging swim. They were eventually rescued by Coastguard and treated for hypothermia; their properly fitted life jackets playing a crucial role in their survival.”

Water Safety data suggests most boaters (95%) and jet skiers (99%) agree that wearing a life jacket should be mandatory everywhere in New Zealand, but this currently isn’t the case.

Life jacket bylaws vary from region to region, with many only stipulating that life jackets are to be available for each person onboard and worn when instructed by the skipper or during times of heightened risk, such as crossing a bar. However, Coastguard and Water Safety NZ believe it should be mandatory for everyone to wear a life jacket on vessels six metres and under while underway and is advocating the Government to act.

“Our message is clear: wearing a life jacket isn’t just a good practice; it’s a vital step in protecting lives,” said Water Safety New Zealand CEO Daniel Gerrard. “Let’s shift the mindset from seeing life jackets as optional to viewing them as essential.”

Last year, Coastguard volunteers assisted more than 6300 people home, rescued 142, and saved six lives.

“Overall, New Zealanders are showing a high degree of complacency when it comes to the water, but this ‘she’ll be right’ attitude is literally killing people. No one heads out expecting to get into trouble, but the fact we responded to 2596 incidents last year shows the unexpected happens all too often,” said Gillespie.

Coastguard is also encouraging Kiwis to bring in any old, damaged, or worn life jackets and upgrade them for brand-new, fit-for-purpose Hutchwilco life jackets at a heavily discounted price through their nationwide Old4New Life jacket Upgrade campaign. They will be visiting 80 locations throughout summer from December through to February.

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