Vessel steaming... crew sleeping

Lookout! Issue 24, March 2012

A fishing vessel steamed towards rocks while all three crew on board slept.
Overturned vessel
Hunter Marine Surveying ©2020
This fishing vessel rolled to port and capsized. The wheelhouse disintegrated on the rocks almost immediately.

The men were oblivious to their plight until one of them was woken by water dripping onto his feet.

The men were nearing the end of a three-day long-line fishing trip in the 12.5 metre vessel. The skipper had set the heading on autopilot and left the remaining two crew members at the helm while he headed to the forecastle to sleep. He asked to be woken after about an hour and a half. The two crew remained on watch and made dinner as the vessel steamed on in relatively calm seas.

As the vessel neared its next waypoint, one of the two crew headed off to his berth in the forecastle. The other crew member remained on watch, but soon decided to wake the skipper and get some sleep himself. He headed to the forecastle and shook the skipper to wake him. Believing the skipper was getting up, the crew member lay down and went to sleep.

All three men were now asleep, with the vessel steaming towards rocks on autopilot. They slept until one of them was woken by water dripping onto his bunk. Realising something was wrong, the two crew members clambered towards the wheelhouse just as the vessel rolled flat onto its port side. It righted itself, and one of the crew pulled the throttle back and took it out of gear just before it started to roll to port again. This time it continued to roll, and capsized. With the vessel upside down, the wheelhouse disintegrated on the rocks almost immediately.

The two crew members were by now both in the engine room, which was filling with water. One was sucked out of the hull by the action of the overhead waves, and the other decided to dive beneath the water and swim out of the hull.

Helicopter view
The rescue helicopter located the men using the signal from their 406MHz distress beacon.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

The two men were separated, but both managed to struggle about 100 metres through the surging waves to shore. They had seen no sign of the skipper and feared him lost.

Once on shore, they saw a red light and sound flashing in the water and managed to fish out the vessel’s 406MHz distress beacon. They took it with them to find shelter in some flax bushes above the high water mark, and soon fell asleep.

They were woken by the distant light and sound of a helicopter, but by now the beacon’s light had stopped flashing, and the helicopter was not heading towards them. They switched it on and the rescue helicopter was soon overhead.

About this time, the skipper says he remembers suddenly finding himself in chest-deep water in the vessel’s forecastle, but could not remember what had happened after the vessel struck rocks. He made his way out and swam towards the lights of the helicopter. The trio were all safely rescued, but the vessel was a total loss.


  • The skipper was woken to take over the watch, but he did not get out of bed and soon fell back to sleep. The crew member who had completed his watch did not wait to ensure the skipper was fully awake before heading to bed himself.
    • Good watchkeeping practice would have been to ensure that the replacement watch was fully awake and had been briefed on the vessel’s course, position and any other relevant matters relating to safe navigation of the vessel.
  • The vessel’s standing orders required the skipper to ensure the watchkeeping alarm was turned on at all times, and to take the key with him while the crew were on watch. Had he done so, the alarm would have sounded, waking at least one of the crew.
  • The vessel’s distress beacon had selfactivated once in water. After a period of time out of water on shore, it had turned itself off. Be aware that a self-activated distress beacon must also be switched on manually to ensure it transmits a continuous signal.
  • The skipper said he had consumed alcohol before departing. When voluntarily breath tested by Police after he was rescued, he failed the limit required for a youth to drive a vehicle.

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