Crew abandons ship in mystery sinking

Lookout! Issue 25, June 2012

A steel-hulled fishing vessel foundered in clear conditions while travelling to fishing grounds.

The 18 metre vessel left port in the early hours of the morning, with the skipper/owner and two crew on board. After clearing the harbour, the skipper went to bed, leaving one crew member on watch. The second crew member took over the watch three hours later.

When the skipper got up at about 7am, he noticed water in the engine room. For the next three hours, the crew tried to remove the water from the vessel, using onboard pumps. However, the water was coming in faster than they could pump it out and, finally, they were forced to abandon the vessel.

The men got in their liferaft and activated their distress beacon. The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand picked up the signal and sent broadcasts to vessels in the area and tasked a helicopter to begin a search. A fishing vessel responding to the broadcasts picked up the men within an hour and then took them back to port.

Crew on board the fishing vessel six years before it foundered.
Trevor Coppock ©2020

The vessel sank in calm conditions in about 1,200 metres of water. One crew member thought he heard a small bang that sounded like something striking the hull, but wasn’t sure about this. Nobody else heard or saw anything unusual leading up to the discovery of water in the engine room.

The vessel sank in daylight, in calm seas. Investigators were unable to determine what caused the sinking, and it remains a mystery. There were no signs of mechanical or other failure. The vessel was correctly certified and manned, and there were no breaches of regulations. It is considered possible that the vessel had collided with a submerged object, but this could not be substantiated.

The crew responded appropriately to the situation and recognised they would not be able to pump the water out and save the vessel. They did the right thing by abandoning ship before their lives were put at risk, and setting off their distress beacon to call for help. It is not feasible to salvage the boat, as it remains submerged in deep water.


  • This event shows just how quickly a vessel can be lost in a seemingly manageable situation. All crew members must be trained to be alert for and understand how to deal with any ingress of water. The crew thought they could get rid of the water coming in. After trying various types of pump, it became obvious that they were fighting a losing battle.
  • All crew members must be trained and drilled on emergency procedures, such as how to safely abandon ship should the need arise. It is also essential that crew are familiar with life-saving equipment such as distress beacons, liferafts and flares. This knowledge is vital when you are suddenly faced with losing the fight to save your boat and perhaps your life.

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