For a safer Sydney Harbour - look to New Zealand

Jetboat in midspin on Sydney Harbour
In an unfortunate incident this weekend a young female passenger and an older male passenger on board a commercial Sydney Harbour jet boat ended up in hospital with back injuries (in the case of the women this turned out to be a fractured spine).

As a Sydney based compensation lawyer and an avid recreational sailor I have in the past represented a jet boat victim whose circumstances were similar to the events of this weekend. In my client’s case an enthusiastic young skipper took the craft out towards the harbour heads.

In his enthusiasm he gunned the throttle too hard just as the boat came into direct contact with the swell and literally launched itself at speed, getting airborne in the process and then falling three or four metres onto a surface that is as hard as concrete.

As reported in today’s Daily Telegraph, a respected neurosurgeon confirmed that he has seen over 20 spinal injuries caused by similar jet boat incidents in the last five years and alludes to there being perhaps ‘many more cases going out there.’ Unless this issue is addressed then it is likely we will see more jet boat related back injuries in the future.

Because of my professional background and sailing interests I am familiar with the guidelines set by NSW Maritime who manages traffic on Sydney harbour and is to be applauded for its thoroughness.

The Operational Practices Guideline rulebook itself is thorough and it is little wonder that boating accidents are becoming rarer (we are presently in the middle of one of the safest boating seasons on record with an 86 per cent drop in fatalities and 55 per cent drop in serious injuries compared with last year).

However while adequate guidelines are in place, what is sadly often lacking at the operational level is an adequate level of common sense and know-how. A young jet boat skipper maybe very proficient in operating the vessel, but owing to their lack of experience is vulnerable to elements that fall beyond abilities and simply can’t be provided through a quick pre-trip briefing.

How do we overcome this issue? One suggestion is looking to our Kiwi brethren where river jet boating is far bigger business than Australia.

In 1998, when there were already 52 commercial jet boat businesses in operation, Maritime New Zealand realised that their operational guidelines needed further adaptation to meet the needs of this niche industry. Many of the subsequent rules are similar to our own in NSW, with the exception that the ‘person driving the jet boat must have not less than 50 hours experience as a jet boat driver.’

Shotover Jet boat

The introduction of mandatory probationary supervision for jet boat skippers in NSW holds the key for reducing similar accidents whilst enhancing the reputation of the operators themselves.

As with other professionals who similarly take on the responsibility of human lives every time they are at the helm, such as airline pilots, this sort of hands on guidance is essential for passing on the life skills that can only be learnt with experience.