Jetboats on the Buller

The Tasman District Council has announced that Jet Boating NZ intends to apply to uplift the speed limit on the Buller River and tributaries. This overview by Jonathan Hunt describes the relevant bylaw and the NZRCA's safety concerns.


According to the TDC, Jet Boating New Zealand intends applying to extend the area where the 5-knot speed restriction has been uplifted on the Buller River. Currently the speed limit has been uplifted all year round below the confluence of the Mangles River, just north of Murchison.

The intended application will relate to lifting that 5-knot speed limit on the Buller River and its tributaries upstream of the Mangles confluence. This will be for the purposes of recreational boating. If consent is granted it will allow all craft access, without speed limitation, further up the Buller, possibly up to the start of the Nelson Lakes National Park. Given the popularity of the Buller catchment rivers with kayakers, removing the speed limit creates additional hazards for paddlers (for example, jetboat on O'Sullivan's rapid).

The TDC advise that the relevant law is as follows:

5.2 Permanent speed upliftings

5.2.1 A person may apply to have any speed limit prescribed by this Bylaw uplifted from waters specified in the application, by application in writing to the Council.

5.2.2 An application under Subclause 5.2.1 must not be granted unless the Council is satisfied that:

  1. the application has been publicly notified; and
  2. affected persons have had reasonable opportunity to comment on the application; and
  3. the applicant has provided evidence of the consultation undertaken with affected persons and any navigation safety concerns arising from the consultation process; and
  4. the applicant has provided evidence of any measures taken to address any concerns raised by affected persons; and
  5. uplifting the speed limit will not unacceptably increase the risk to navigation safety or endanger persons using the waters that are the subject of the application.

5.2.3 The Council must consult with the Director of Maritime Safety before granting any application made under Subclause 5.2.1 and must notify the Director of Maritime Safety when it grants such an application and must give public notice of the speed uplifting.

5.2.4 The Council may grant an application in accordance with Subclause 5.2.2 for a specified period or periods and subject to such conditions as Council may specify in the interests of maritime safety.

Jetboat signals

The Rules of River Boating for jetboats don't mention kayakers, but do include Jet Boat Signals. Kayakers should note that signals used by jetboaters are significantly different to river signals used by kayakers; in particular a jetboater's 'stop' is a kayaker's 'go', and their 'turn' signal is our 'help/emergency' signal.

Correspondence with JBNZ

NZRCA Letter to JBNZ, 29 November 2003
JBNZ Letter to NZRCA
NZRCA Letter to JBNZ, 13 October 2003

29 November 2003: Our Safety Officer, Glenn Murdoch has responded to the JBNZ's letter with the following letter, reiterating our safety concerns (Letter as PDF (PDF, 366k):

Jet Boat Access to the Buller River and Tributaries

Thank you for your undated reply to my earlier letter.

My earlier letter does not make it clear that we understand Jet Boating NZ has applied to uplift the speed restriction for the Buller above the Mangles River confluence and the tributaries. NZRCA, however, understands this fact completely and is still opposed to your application as outlined below.

JBNZ does not appear to realise the importance of the entire Buller catchment to kayakers. As detailed in my earlier letter, with evidence supporting the creation of the Buller Water Conservation Order, the Buller River and its tributaries are amongst the most valued rivers in New Zealand, and definitely in the South Island.

Your letter goes to great lengths to assure us that members of JBNZ will respect the safety and interests of kayakers. You make no mention of jet boaters who are not members of JBNZ. It will obviously become common knowledge amongst the jet boating population that the entire Buller River and its tributaries could be jet boated if the speed restriction was uplifted. You make no mention of how to mitigate the effects of jet boaters who are not members of JBNZ, who may not be aware that kayakers even use the Buller River or its tributaries.

The major issue when kayakers and jet boats share a watercourse is safety. Your letter only increases our concerns in this regard. The Rules of the Road document that you included is laughably inadequate in relation to kayakers. It is patently obvious that there was no consultation with kayakers regarding the production of this document.

This document does raise one interesting point. It indicates that a jet boat must not exceed 5 knots if you are within 50 metres of any other boat. The major safety concern we have is that kayakers will often be invisible to jet boaters. As indicated in my earlier letter, hydraulic features in the river such as waves will often obscure kayakers. This means that a jet boater can never be sure that they are more than 50 metres from a kayak, and therefore must always travel at less than 5 knots.

Your letter indicates that jet boaters are always on the lookout for other vehicles and trailers at launch sites on riverbanks. This statement indicates a total ignorance of how kayakers use rivers. Kayakers do not use boat ramps. We virtually always access rivers by walking a distance to the river. Often we access or leave the river at points where we are required to clamber up or down a bank to the river.

Your letter states, "It is unlikely that more than a few boats on an occasional basis will be boating this piece of river. The isolation and variable river conditions mean that the opportunities are very limited." This statement is the very antithesis of how kayakers use the Buller River and its tributaries. Opportunities for kayakers are unlimited. For kayakers the rivers offer excellent kayaking for people of all abilities, and the access to these rivers is very easy.

The JBNZ website indicates that the Buller River from Lake Rotoiti to Lyell is graded in difficulty as Class 3 and 4. According to your website, the Class 4 sections (Lake Rotoiti to Homestead Creek and Murchison to Lyell) are unable to be boated, and the Class 3 sections (Homestead Creek to Owen Junction and Owen Junction to Murchison) can only be boated by skilled operators. These river sections offer excellent kayaking for people ranging from beginners to experts.

Your application appears to be the same as kayakers applying for the speed restriction to be reintroduced to the Wilkin or Hunter River so that a couple of kayakers can use these rivers very occasionally.

Once again I reiterate that NZRCA sees JBNZ's proposal as a major threat to kayaking in the Buller region. The Association is opposed to the uplifting of the 5-knot speed restriction on the Buller River upstream of the Mangles River confluence and its tributaries.

Yours sincerely,
NZ Recreational Canoeing Association
Glenn Murdoch
Safety Officer
Cc: Graeme Caradus, Harbour Master, Tasman District Council, Nelson.
Mick Hopkinson, NZ Kayak School, Murchison.
Lawson Davey, Fish & Game Officer, Fish & Game, Nelson / Marlborough.
Russell Kilvington, Director of Maritime Safety Authority.
John Marshall, Maritime Safety Authority.
Paul Swain, Minister of Transport
Harry Duynhoven, Associate Minister of Transport
Judith Tizard, Associate Minister of Transport
Jill Dalton, President, NZ Outdoor Instructors Association
Ron Wastney, Nelson Canoe Club
Trevor James, Westland Canoe Club
Damien O'Connor, MP for West Coast / Tasman
Nick Smith, National Member for Nelson

In response to the NZRCA's initial letter, the JBNZ sent us a letter, along the following lines:


Thank you for your letter of 23 October 2003.

We are concerned that you refer to the entire Buller River. Jet Boating NZ has applied to uplift the river from the Mangles confluence and above, the lower section of the river has been uplifted since 21 March 1991. This river has a forty year history of jet boating.

Our Association represents 2,500 members throughout NZ and has over a forty year history of boating rivers. The Association has been very active over that period in the legislative area. A considerable amount of work was done at the time of the introduction of the Water Recreation Regulations in 1974.

The 5-knot within 200 metres of the shore regulation that was applied to inland waters at that time, meant that narrow waters such as rivers all became subject to a 5 knot restriction. The regulations in the main are for harbour and coastal use. Hence the development of the uplifting system to remove that restriction so that boats (not just jet boats) could travel at above 5 knots lawfully. The most common example of an uplifted 5 knot restriction being the very familiar water-ski lane. Considerable work was done to obtain the gazetted uplifting of these regulations, including the Buller below the Mangles confluence.

Further work was done throughout the country with the introduction of the RMA to ensure that jetboating was included as a permitted activity in the District Planning process. This ensured that the environmental aspects were addressed. We are clear that environmental issues lie within this piece of legislation and they cannot be revisited when examining navigational safety. Now that the upliftings in this area are to be done by the TDC we have an obligation to consult with other river users.

In 2002 JBNZ requested and obtained a two-month uplifting on the Upper Buller River from MSA. This uplifting was publicly notified. We are not aware of any navigatonal safety issues that arose as a result of that uplifting. This year we had granted a one day uplifting on 17 August granted by the TDC.

It is unlikely that more than a few boats on an occasional basis will be boating this piece of river. The isolation and variable river conditions mean that the opportunities are very limited.

JBNZ is committed to a harmonious relationship with other river users and to sharing resources. We share rivers with many groups of users all over NZ, including commercial and private craft, commercial and recreational fisherman and kayakers, and it works well. We are aware that there are almost always other river users and are always prepared to pull up for the other to pass or avoid those who are engaged in fishing, kayaking, swimming or similar.

Please find attached the centre page from JBNZ's Safety and Yearbook that includes a graphic representation of the 'Rules of the Road' and has a particular reference to kayaking. We are clear that these regulations include powered and unpowered craft, although we are very aware of the forces of moving water when manouvering unpowered craft.

It would be helpful to other river users if your association could provide direction regarding the visibility of kayaks. Fluorescent paddle tips, helmets and brightly coloured lifejackets would certainly assist. Jet boaters are always on the lookout for other vehicles and trailers at launch sites on riverbanks, as we are aware of safety of other users. In the forty two years of records available for JBNZ, there is no record of any of its members having a collision with a kayaker.

At various times during the year, jetboaters have assisted and continue to assist at kayak and multisport events where kayakers are involved, for safety and support. JBNZ and its members are one of the first organisations to be called for search and rescue work for missing persons in a river situation, which has included kayak accidents in the past.

If you have further concerns regarding navigational safety, we would be most grateful if you could write to us again outlining them.

Yours faithfully
K.A.V Jameson
National Rivers Officer

13 October 2003: NZRCA Safety Officer Glenn Murdoch has written the following letter to Jet Boating NZ outlining our concerns (Letter as PDF (PDF, 72k)):

Jet Boat Access to the Buller River and Tributaries

The Association has recently learned that Jet Boating New Zealand (JBNZ) intend to apply for a modification to the Tasman District Council bylaw to allow use of the Buller River and its tributaries for jet boats.

The Buller River and its tributaries are a major kayaking resource in New Zealand and are valued highly by kayakers for many reasons. The Association has two concerns regarding jet boats being allowed access to the Buller River and its tributaries.

Safety of Kayakers

Kayaking is a sport that has a level of inherent risk. With experience, kayakers learn to manage the risks that are intrinsic to kayaking. This occurs at all levels of kayaking, from extreme kayakers paddling very difficult rivers, to beginner and intermediate kayakers paddling relatively easy rivers. Risks that are introduced to the river environment, such as jetboats, have the potential to be overwhelming for kayakers, especially for beginner or intermediate kayakers that have less experience.

Kayakers travel downstream with the river current and carry out kayaking activity on the hydraulic water features occurring in the river. This generally involves surfing waves or riding re-circulating wave holes. Kayakers can move rapidly across the rapid from one whitewater feature to another in an unpredictable fashion. Generally where the river current is fastest the river is narrower and the biggest waves occur at that point. Kayakers sit low in the water and a kayaker's field of vision is approximately one metre above the river. Often the waves and other hydraulic features in the river are higher than the kayakers. A whitewater rapid has constantly moving water and surface kayakers are often out of view.

I understand that jet boats need to travel at speed on the plane to maintain steering control. A jet boat's ground speed is greatly increased when jet boats are travelling downstream with the current. The combination of various factors means that a jet boat travelling up or down whitewater rapid may not be seen or heard by a kayaker and conversely a jet boat driver may not see a kayaker.

At any time a jet boat passing close to a kayaker in whitewater is an uncomfortable experience for kayakers because of the boat's wash displacement wake and loud engine noise. A collision between a kayak and jet boat would have drastic consequences for the kayaker.

The NZJBA's website outlines safety rules for jet boating. This document fails to mention kayakers and how jet boaters propose to deal with the safety issues raised when kayakers and jet boaters are sharing a section of river.

Kayak participant numbers continue to increase and this will result in greater future competition for river resources. Where any overlap of use occurs between kayakers and jet boats, the future risk of a collision will be greater with the increasing number of river users. For the continuing safety of kayakers it is crucial that jet boats are excluded from existing popular kayaking river areas, such as the Buller River and its tributaries.

Recreational Amenity

In 1991 the NZ Canoeing Association (since replaced by the NZRCA) conducted a National River Use Survey. The objectives of the RUS were to measure the relative importance of New Zealand rivers to NZCA members, to measure the usage of New Zealand rivers by NZCA members and to develop a database for future advocacy of New Zealand rivers.

The results of the RUS indicated that the Buller River and its tributaries were amongst the most valued rivers in the country for kayakers. Attached to this letter is the evidence of Martin Unwin and Colin Leitch, which was used to advocate for the Buller River and its tributaries during the Buller Water Conservation Order hearings. This evidence outlines the results of the RUS and details the different sections of the Buller River and its tributaries.

These hearings resulted in the creation of the Buller WCO. This was due in a large part to the efforts of kayakers. This alone indicates the value of the Buller River and its tributaries to kayakers.

One of the Buller River catchment's main attributes for kayakers is the diverse range of kayaking opportunities available for kayakers of any ability. The Buller River and its tributaries have kayaking sections ranging from Grade 1 (very easy water suitable for beginners) to Grade 5 (difficult whitewater suitable for experts). Attached are copies of relevant pages from the kayaking guide, "New Zealand Whitewater. 125 Great Kayaking Runs," which detail the relevant sections of the Buller and its tributaries.

The Association sees JBNZ's proposal as a major threat to kayaking in the Buller region. We request that JBNZ withdraw its proposal to apply for a modification of the Tasman District Council's bylaw.

Yours sincerely
NZ Recreational Canoeing Association
Glenn Murdoch
Safety Officer
Cc: Mick Hopkinson, NZ Kayak School, Murchison.
Graeme Caradus, Harbour Master, Tasman District Council, Nelson.