Jet ski safety focus for Rotorua Lakes this summer

Thursday 27 December 2012, 2:28PM
By Bay of Plenty Regional Council


Speeding jet skis and boats have not made a good start to the summer on Rotorua's lakes.

"So far the general behaviour has not been good," says Bay of Plenty Regional Council Rotorua Lakes Maritime Officer Ross Powell.

"There's been a lot of speeding in five knot zones and last Saturday we had to fine a jet skier on Lake Rotoiti after warning them the weekend before for doing exactly the same thing.

"We want people to have a great summer and to enjoy our lakes but they need to do it safely and with others around them in mind."

Mr Powell has been patrolling Rotorua's lakes for four years but is still surprised by the lack of care many people take and says those using jet skis are among the worst.

This summer the Bay of Plenty Regional Council's maritime team is running a campaign aimed at improving the behaviour of jet ski users in the region.

As the number of jet skis has increased in recent years, so have the number of accidents, incidents and near misses and most incidents involve males aged 17 to 30.

Jet skis are as powerful and as fast as a car but under current laws anyone 15 and over can be in charge of one, no licence required.

"Cars have seatbelts but nobody is secure on a jet ski and the way many people use them, there's always the potential for disaster," Mr Powell says.

"People think they're in control but a fast jet ski will do 120 kph. If something goes wrong at that speed, you're in a lot of trouble."

Mr Powell says there is a genuine lack of understanding among jet ski users about how to operate a jet ski and the rules that govern their use.

"Because they're a lot cheaper to buy now some families buy a jet ski instead of a boat. Some are big enough to fit 3 people on at once and you can tow another person on the back. Unfortunately not a lot of people get proper instruction before getting on one. It takes a bit of practise to handle them properly - they can get away on you."

Many people don't realise that just like boaties, the use of jet skis is governed by bylaws and they are liable to a $200 fine if they break those rules, which includes exceeding 5 knots when within 200 m of the shore or other lake users.

"We prefer to educate people rather than just hand out fines therefore we give a lot of verbal warnings. We explain the bylaws and if they don't heed the verbal warning a written warning or in extreme cases an infringement is issued. This involves a $200 fine."

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council Maritime team will patrol all 11 lakes this summer including Rotoiti, Rotoma, Tikitapu and Okareka which are the worst in terms of jet ski users' behaviour - those four lakes are where the most incidents and near misses occur.

Speeding is the most common problem and no observer on board when towing is also high on the list on Rotorua's lakes, he says. There is zero tolerance for the latter and that offence incurs an automatic fine.

"On a positive note it is pleasing to see that there has been a huge change in attitude when it comes to wearing life jackets which we really noticed last year but unfortunately, the general behaviour of lake users so far this summer has been worse than previous,"

"When the lakes become congested the potential for trouble increases hugely and we just want everyone to make an effort over the next few months - to learn and follow the rules and be mindful of other people around them who are also trying to enjoy their summer activities."

Two summers ago on Okareka Rotorua teenager Bishop Thompson died after being knocked from the back of a jet ski by another jet ski. He wore no life jacket and it took days for police and navy divers to find his body.

Last summer, there was a very similar incident on Lake Okareka also involving two jet skis which were criss-crossing each other's wakes. A person was knocked off one of the jet skis but was fortunately wearing a life jacket.

"That was very disappointing and it was only by pure luck that nobody was seriously injured, or worse, as happened the summer before."

Also last summer four people were fined for "racing" up the Ohau Channel which runs between lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti.

This summer the public will see a patrol vessel and two jet skis randomly patrolling the lakes. There is a dedicated team of maritime staff and volunteers who will help patrol Rotorua's lakes ensuring the lakes are safe for the benefit of all users.

Some of the lakes can become particularly congested including Tikitapu (Blue Lake) and Rotoma where there can be up to 60 boats and 20 jet skis in the water at any one time.

With jet skis now more affordable, there are a lot more of them out on the lakes.

"Jet skis are very fast and manoeuvrable and things can easily go wrong if people are fooling around and don't know how to handle them properly.

"We want people to have fun but there are some simple rules they need to follow to ensure everyone gets to enjoy themselves and we don't have any more tragedies."

As part of the regional council's summer campaign, jet ski users will be encouraged to wear life jackets rather than just stow them on board which is all the law currently requires them to do.

They will also be encouraged to go on a Coastguard Day Skipper's course which will teach them the rules and all they need to know to be safe.

The whanau of Bishop Thompson, Rotorua-based Olympic kayaker Luuka Jones and Kiwi pro surfer Matt Hewitt are endorsing the summer campaign.