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Wednesday, 5 March 1980
Page: 604


Senator RAE (Tasmania) - I wish to raise a different matter which I do not think will be regarded in any way as politically controversial. Last weekend was a tragic weekend in Tasmania. Eight deaths occurred by drowning. I believe that the time has come for us to consider a few practical things that could be done other than making regulations. I am concerned at the response to the sort of thing that happened at the weekend and which is happening increasingly around the coast of Australia. As a result of the tremendous growth in boating activities, there has been a large increase in the number of deaths by drowning. People are saying that we must make more regulations. We must insist on people wearing lifejackets at all times, or something like that. I believe that problems are not cured by regulations.

I wish to raise two aspects of this problem. One of them concerns weather forecasting. Most people are aware that with the increasing use of small runabout motor powered vessels which are not particularly seaworthy the state of the seas becomes tremendously important. Therefore, weather forecasts and warnings become important as do radio and the opportunity to receive the warnings that are given. At the moment the available information is not being used and the warnings are totally inadequate. The weather bureau does not use the available information. It uses its scientific interpretation of the traditional information sources to anticipate what it thinks may happen. It then gives a scientific interpretation. When people are sitting in a gale reporting by radio that a gale is blowing, the weather bureau is saying that according to its charts the wind is blowing at 20 knots and that is what it will give out as a warning.

This sort of thing is happening repeatedly. It was brought home to me personally last weekend, firstly because it was a tragic weekend in Tasmania and secondly because I sat in a gale for 12 or 15 hours listening to the weather bureau broadcasting strong wind warnings while the wind was blowing at nearly 50 knots. I am aware that adequate information was available from large and small vessels in Bass Strait through various radio communication systems to radio in Melbourne and Hobart and through those cities to the weather bureau. It would have been able to say at least that whilst it believed that a strong wind warning was in order, reports from vessels in the area indicated that a gale was blowing. This is the second time in a short period that I have experienced it. Whilst I have had numerous complaints from other people, I speak only of my personal knowledge.

On 8 December 1979 I listened for 24 hours to the weather bureau giving repeated strong wind warnings- there is a great deal of difference to safety at sea between a strong wind warning and a gale warning- while I witnessed a drama which very fortunately did not result in any deaths. The drama was a result of a gale which lasted for about 24 hours. There was no reference in those reports to that gale although information on it was available to the coastal surveillance authorities and to the Marine Operations Centre in Canberra. Long after that information was available to all. authorities there was a continuation of the giving of a false report.

I believe that we need to have a situation in which the way in which weather warnings are given in relation to marine operations is changed to include two factors: One is the interpretation of the scientific information and the other is the result of somebody poking his head outside the window and looking at what is going on. I speak with some feeling because I have experienced it enough times. Perhaps I can divert for a moment. It is a standing joke on the boat on which I sail for us to listen to the weather forecasts and then for someone to say: 'Now we know what is not going to happen; I wonder what will happen'. If we were to introduce a system whereby reports from vessels in the area to the coastal radio service were to be taken into account and at least transmitted as reports which have been received -not as fact- it may save a lot of lives at sea. That is one matter which I wished to raise and which I have raised in all seriousness.

The second aspect of it is that if we are to save lives at sea we need to ensure that communication is available. The only practical communication at sea is by radio. I believe that the Government is acting in a way which is increasing the likelihood of expensive searches having to be undertaken at Government expense and increasing the likelihood of loss of life at sea for the sake of peanuts, for the sake of silly little amounts of money. The Australian Fishing Industry Council took up the question of radio licence fees in a letter dated 13 January 1980 to the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Nixon). There has been an attempt to limit the overutilisation of certain radio channels and to diversify in order to improve the efficiency of radio operation in Australia. The practical result of that, without going into too much detail, is that the average boat which goes to sea now needs to have not only single side band radio but also citizen band radio. The Government has not only increased the fee from $12.50 to $50 a year but also requires separate licences for each type of radio. It is a direct result of what has been attempted to improve the efficiency of the use of radio that people have had to spend the extra money to buy new sets. A good single side band radio costs over $2,000. A citizen band radio is cheaper but when the Government requires people to pay a $50 licensing fee for radios which are used for communication at sea in the interest of safety, it seems to me that we are moving backwards instead of forwards, that we are penny-pinching and that we are increasing the likelihood of expensive and fruitless searches to the detriment of the saving of life and the efficiency of operation of those who use the seas.

While talking about this matter, I would like to raise as a third matter the question of the futility of certain searches which were undertaken during December and January. I would like to tell honourable senators about some of the lessons which we may be able to learn as a result of those searches. A yacht called the Charleston left Hobart and was on its way to Sydney to participate in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. It last reported in when it was about 30 miles east of Flinders Island on its way to Sydney and it has not been heard of since. I have not found a person who knows the waters, be he fisherman, master mariner or ocean-going yachtsman, who would agree with what happened as to the way in which the search for that yacht was conducted. It was conducted primarily off the New South Wales coast although the weather pattern would have blown any survivors or any wreckage in a south-easterly direction from somewhere off Flinders Island. An expensive search was conducted in an area where the prospect of finding anything was nil.

The rather sad part about it all is that a yacht lost its life raft in that area at the time and saw that life raft float away- it was washed overboard during that gale and it almost certainly went through Banks Strait and out into the area where the Charleston was last heard of- but the search did not locate that life raft. So there was a situation in which almost certainly there was a life raft in the area in which the yacht was last heard of. A search was conducted in the wrong area until very late in the search when representations eventually had it changed to being conducted in the right area. That was an expensive failure- expensive in loss of life and expensive in the cost of the search. During the Hobart to Auckland yacht race a yacht called the Mardi Gras went missing. A search was conducted for that yacht but it was never located. The yacht eventually sailed into Auckland. In other words the search was fruitless. The yacht fortunately was safe. Another yacht in that race, the Smackwater Jack, did not turn up and it has never been heard of since.

I have not the slightest faith in the system we have of conducting searches at sea while it is being conducted in the manner in which it is. I suggest that we need to look seriously at the sorts of questions which I have raised tonight in relation to gale warnings and the operation of the weather bureau. We need to look seriously at the question of the charges that we impose as a disincentive to the fitting of radios which can assist communication and thereby give warning. We need to give some consideration to how we conduct searches and what sorts of searches will be conducted. I make a simple suggestion: I suggest that life rafts should be fitted with a particular space age material- a very fine metal material which is used in space suits and which is also used in what are called survival blankets. It could be fitted very simply into the top of the life raft's canopy. It is a radar reflector which would enable the life raft to be picked up with great ease by the surveillance aircraft which we have. Instead of that we have the needle in the haystack situation where a whole lot of money is wasted in trying to achieve the impossible of finding a life raft in a huge sea. The material I have suggested could be picked up electronically by radar reflection. It is an inexpensive means of achieving the likelihood of being able to find survivors of tragedies at sea.

I simply take the opportunity of saying in this chamber that these are experiences which we have gained as a result of the past summer season in Australia and which have been highlighted by the disaster in the Fastnet race off the English coast and the reports that have been made in relation to that. I think we have been lax in the past in approaching the question along the line that 'regulations will overcome' rather than facilitating how we will ensure that people can know what is likely to happen and that if something does happen they are likely to be found simply and quickly. I would urge that the Minister pass on these comments to the proper authorities.







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