Skipper asleep at wheel as trawler heads ashore

Lookout! Issue 25, June 2012

A commercial fishing trawler grounded because its skipper fell asleep at the wheel.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The vessel spent several days grounded on the beach. Its fuel was removed and it was eventually towed clear and back to port.

The skipper and crewman, both experienced fishermen, had been fishing for two days and had anchored in a local bay for both nights. When they set off for the fishing grounds in the early morning of their third day out, the skipper had developed toothache and did not sleep well when relieved at the helm.

At about 8pm, at the end of the day’s fishing, the 18 metre vessel steamed north, intending to anchor 200 metres off a beach in 15 metres of water.

The trawler grounded at night when the skipper fell asleep at the wheel, after checking the vessel’s position two nautical miles from the beach.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

The skipper was navigating with the vessel’s GPS, depth sounder and radar. Because he didn’t feel particularly tired, he had the alarm on the depth sounder set on low volume and didn’t activate the watch alarm on the bridge. He wasn’t sure how to operate the GPS alarm and left it off.

The skipper checked the vessel’s position at two nautical miles from the beach and, at some stage after this, he fell asleep.

The crewman was on deck preparing to anchor when he became aware of breakers ahead. He alerted the skipper, who put the vessel into reverse, but a stabiliser arm struck the sea bed, causing the trawler to turn beam-on to the seas and ground on the shore.

The skipper alerted Maritime Radio and the company manager by cell phone. The men then took shelter in the wheelhouse until early morning, when they disembarked onto the beach and sought refuge in a local farmhouse.

Over the following days, fuel was removed from the vessel and it was eventually towed clear of the beach and back to port.


  • This was a serious accident that could have had more serious consequences, and it highlights the dangers associated with fatigue on fishing vessels.
  • The vessel grounded because the skipper fell asleep. As a consequence, he failed in his responsibility to keep a proper lookout by sight and hearing, as well as by all available means, while the vessel was underway.
    • The skipper should have ensured before taking the helm that he was not so tired that there was a possibility he could fall asleep. He should also have ensured the watch alarm was on and that the alarm on the depth sounder was loud enough to wake him.
  • The skipper said he was only three days into a five- or six-day trip and didn’t consider himself unduly tired. However, he had worked for 18 to19 hours for each of the previous three days.
    • It is also possible that suffering from toothache affected his fatigue level and that he had failed to appreciate its impact.
  • The skipper and crewman were share fishermen and received a percentage of any catch. The skipper said commercial pressure required them to work long hours. He also commented that the manning level was kept to two to provide them with a reasonable catch percentage.
  • To assist the crew in managing the hazards associated with fatigue, the vessel’s managers had fatigue management documents on board, some of which were posted at the helm position. They had also ensured that the crew had attended a FishSAFE meeting, which included fatigue management.

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