Being girt by sea has come to define Australia. Our enviable beaches and coral reefs are the bedrock of international tourism campaigns. We pretend to care about a Sydney to Hobart yacht race every Christmas. And our national identity as an isolated, continent-sized island paradise at the southern end of nowhere has given rise to some contentious border control policies and public debate.
But we’re not just defined by this environment, we spend an awful lot of time splashing about in and on it. While national frenemy New Zealand may boast more boats per capita than any other country in the world, boat ownership continues to rise in Australia, with larger boats joining the humble tinnie as an increasingly common sight in suburban garages.
As more people begin spending more leisure time on the ocean, the chances of unexpected encounters and incidents increases.
Drama series Safe Harbour presents one such encounter, when a group of friends come across boat people off the the Queensland coast. It’s fiction, but it does touch on a truth about the ocean: it’s vast, the laws that govern it are less than concrete. Even a leisurely cruise comes with a certain degree of risk. So what exactly should you do if you find yourself in a strange situation at sea?
Vessels in distress
A voyage at sea could see you encountering a call for help from a vessel in distress. Australian law, as per the Navigation Act, clearly requires the master of a vessel at sea to give assistance to a vessel, aircraft or survival craft in distress, within our search and rescue region (SAR).
Australia’s SAR is massive. It covers the continent, and large parts of the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans, while also including the Australian Antarctic territories. That comes in at a region of roughly 53 million square kilometres, which also borders the SAR regions of 10 other countries. As you can imagine with a space that enormous, obligations and rights can become a little bit fluid. What is clear, however, is that there’s both a moral and a legal obligation to render assistance at sea whenever and wherever possible.
It’s actually arguments around Australia’s obligations within the SAR that have led to disputes around Australian border protection and the highly contentious policy to tow asylum seeker boats back towards Indonesia. The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) is a little vague in this regard, which opened up the legal loophole the federal government needed to supposedly stop the boats.
What the convention does state is that assistance needs to be rendered to anyone in distress at sea, coordinated by the country whose region the rescue took place. The survivors are then to be delivered to the nearest port as soon as possible, which doesn’t deviate the vessel doing the rescuing too much from its intended voyage. As you can imagine, when you are talking about a country with a search and rescue region of 53 million square kilometres, that nearest port is not always going to be Australia. In a world where the issue isn’t overly politicised, the obligation is simply to save lives at sea.
Loot and plunder on the high seas! Salvage law acts more like a reward system than outright piracy. There’s a common misconception that the oceans are governed by an expensive take on "finders keepers" – rescued ships are yours to own or anything taken from an abandoned vessel is yours to keep. Unfortunately, these are still sadly regarded as "theft" and "piracy".
What you are entitled to, after rescuing a vessel in peril at sea or in navigable waters, is a generous reward. In Australia, these rewards aren’t based, as they once were, on a percentage of the rescued vessel’s value, but a combination of factors including the salved value of the vessel and other property, risk, measure of success, and the nature and degree of danger. This amount is ultimately decided by the courts, but can commonly result in a reward between 20 percent and 50 percent of a typical recreational vessel’s value.
Mine your own business
Less a law and more a curiosity worth mentioning, there still exists the chance that anyone at sea around Australia could encounter naval mines left over from World War II. Though Australian waters were extensively swept for mines following the war, submerged and unexploded mines are still a potential chance encounter. It’s an extremely slim chance, but worth being aware of nonetheless. Even as recently as 2016, the Royal Australian Navy had to dispose of mines discovered in Far North Queensland. If there is a law around mines it’s simply this: leave them alone, report them to authorities and never, ever, ever think about bringing one back to port. That’s just going to be a bad time for everybody.