No communications, no chance
Lookout! Issue 24, March 2012
As they fought for their lives, no one on shore had any inkling that they were in danger and their attempts to raise the alarm failed.
The group had set out for an afternoon’s fishing, in an aluminium boat. No one wore a lifejacket, although there were six carried on board. The boat was travelling at speed, and up on the plane when the motor suddenly stopped. As the boat dropped off, its wake flooded over the starboard quarter, causing it to roll to starboard and capsize. All five on board were spilled into the sea.
The capsize was totally unexpected. The men tried unsuccessfully to right the hull, and to make a 111 cellphone call, but could not get through due to poor coverage.
They managed to set off a smoke flare, but people on a nearby yacht did not appear to see it, and others on shore who saw it did not raise the alarm. One of the men sent his partner a text message, but she didn’t take it seriously.
One of the men managed to dive under the boat and pull out three lifejackets, which were divvied out to those who needed them most. The group decided to try to make shore, and started swimming towards a group of islands about 2 kilometres away.
By now the wind had picked up and a slight chop had developed. The party was separated into two groups, who were soon unable to see each other in the choppy conditions.
The two groups continued their struggle towards the islands for about three hours. One man towed his companion as best he could for some way, but eventually the companion was lost. The man managed to reach one of the islands, and spent a freezing wet night alone, thinking he was the only one who had survived.
The next morning he saw that the boy and the other two men had made it to an adjacent island, and at low tide he was able to pick his way over a reef to join them.
About mid-morning, the wife of one of the men started to think something was wrong and raised the alarm. The group were found by a rescue helicopter soon after. They were extremely hypothermic, but eventually recovered in hospital.
An extensive air and sea search failed to find the missing man. His body was recovered some days later.
- The men were not wearing lifejackets, and the boat capsized so quickly that they did not have time to put them on before being thrown into the sea. Three lifejackets were recovered, but these were difficult to put on once the men were in the water. The man who drowned had not done up the waist strap on his lifejacket, and it had slipped off.
- None of the party had made a clear plan with anyone on shore about what time they should be expected to return. The partners of two of the men had simply assumed the men had decided to stay at each other’s houses overnight, and were not at all concerned until the morning. Letting someone responsible know where you’re going and when you intend to be back will mean that action is taken if you are overdue.
- The men had few ways to raise the alarm. There was poor cellphone coverage, and they did not carry a waterproof, hand-held VHF radio. One of the men sent a text message to his partner as soon as he was flung into the water, but it was not taken seriously.
- The men fired a flare, which had been seen from shore, but no one took any action. All flare sightings should be responded to as though they indicate a real emergency. It is far better to raise the alarm, even if this turns out to be in error. It is not known whether those on board the nearby yacht also saw the men’s flare.
- The boat had a boarding platform that extended aft of the hull from the bottom of the transom. When brought to a sudden stop, most vessels like this will be impacted by their own wake on the transom. In this case, the boarding platform may also have dug the stern into the water, providing an easy path for the water to flow into the vessel. The flooding waters then quickly capsized it.
- This tragedy highlights the importance of preparing for a sudden emergency. In many cases, there is no time to put on lifejackets or grab emergency communications equipment. MNZ recommends wearing lifejackets at all times and carrying two effective means of communication that will work when wet. A distress beacon or waterproof handheld VHF carried in a pocket or float-free grab bag would have enabled the men to alert emergency services.