Major upgrade to Wellington maritime radio coverage
Coastguard Central Region and Amateur Radio Emergency Communications work together to vastly improve coverage in the Harbour and in Cook Strait.
Ringed by the city, and as the gateway to the South Island, our capital has a very busy harbour. There are windsurfers, jet skis, recreational boaties, commercial fishing fleets, five yacht clubs, interisland ferries and ocean-going cargo vessels, all voyaging out into the region’s notoriously changeable weather. It is a rather dynamic body of water to patrol.
Geoff Layton has volunteered for Coastguard Wellington for nearly 50 years. “There wasn’t a radio network back in the day, but over time various repeaters were installed to improve coverage,” he recalls. Over the years, finding theoretically suitable locations which were also practically suitable with landowner permission, access and funding has been difficult. The result is that coverage in the area has been less than desirable for quite some time.
The Wellington Coastguard had used a VHF repeater which was owned by the yacht clubs but it was less than ideal. “They race in the centre of the harbour, and their repeater is situated well for that. But at our base, and many other places we need to access, there’s barely any comms at all,” says Geoff.
Similarly, the entire south coast to Sinclair Head and beyond remained a VHF blind spot, especially in the inshore area used by divers and small craft. This exposed stretch of water leads to Cook Strait and is subject to wild weather and sea conditions. For decades, sailors and Coastguard volunteers in the area would be out of radio communication for hours. Although there is some cellphone cover-age, the severe limitations of that technology for safety and rescue purposes are well understood.This was a significant safety risk which has been known for some time.
Building on relationships formed through the NZSAR Consultative Committee, Ian Hutchings from Amateur Radio Emergency Communications (AREC) and Lesley Slieker, Central Region Manager for Coastguard NZ were able to lead a project to solve the problem.
“Ian and his AREC team of four had the unique combination of landowner contacts, technical expertise and passion to complete the project,” says Lesley. “We were able to secure the funding and ensure the system met the specific needs.”
The AREC team looked for sites that gave both inshore and wide area coverage and were able to utilise existing radio sites at Newlands and Te Kopahou. With new maritime repeaters at these sites, and a link system, the harbour, South Coast and Cook Strait now have great coverage. This project was only possible with equipment and fund-ing from Coastguard, support from the Harbourmaster, site access from Wellington City Council and Kiwirail, and radio expertise from the AREC team.
The coverage will allow direct communications from vessels on search activities to both Coastguard HQ and the Police SAR base. A future addition will be the addition of remote access from the 24/7 Coastguard base at Auckland.
Carrying two forms of waterproof communication is a core element of the Boating Safety Code. “Now we have excellent VHF coverage, boaties will have more faith in their radios. It will also keep our volun-teers safer and enable them to save more lives at sea,” says Lesley.
“We [in the SAR sector] know we need to be working better together at every level. This is a perfect example of two SAR organisations collaborating to make a real difference to safety at sea, through the passion and expertise of our members.”
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of Link Magazine.