Men drown after large wave sinks catamaran

Lookout! Issue 26, September 2012

Two men drowned and three other people were lucky to survive after a large wave capsized a 7.5 metre recreational power catamaran in cold inshore waters.

The survivors said the wave appeared to come out of nowhere and was much bigger than other waves the vessel had encountered after the group set out on their fishing trip. The wave struck the twin-hulled former commercial vessel at an angle, rolling it over and filling the cabin with water. Four people in the cabin were thrown forward with the impact. All received cuts and bruises and two of them suffered head injuries.

In seconds, the cabin filled with water, but they managed to swim out and climb onto the upturned hull to join the fifth person, who’d been on deck when the wave hit. The group then tied a section of the anchor warp between the hulls to hang onto in case conditions deteriorated while they were waiting for help to arrive.

The skipper’s partner knew where they were going and to call the authorities if she had not heard from them before nightfall, but the capsize happened early on in the trip.

The front section of the 7.5 metre launch remained afloat but the rear section sank when a fast ferry catamaran cut it in two.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

After about 30 minutes, the boat sank. The five linked together in the water and struck out for the shore of an island about 2 kilometres distant, holding on to each other’s lifejackets for support. The two strongest swimmers were positioned at opposite ends.

Strong currents pushed the group beyond the island, so they attempted to swim with the current and swell towards another island a few kilometres away. As they struggled towards the next likely landing place, two of the men lost consciousness (most likely due to hypothermia from their prolonged time in the cold water), and died.

With the tide about to turn and with daylight fading, the remaining man and two women had no choice but to let their companions’ bodies go and attempt to reach an anchored fishing boat they’d sighted in the distance.

Eventually, the trio reached the fishing boat, but were too exhausted to climb on board. The boat’s owners, camping onshore, heard their calls for help and then sighted the three people in the water.

The skipper of the boat rowed a dinghy out and towed them in to shore. He then returned to the fishing boat to use its VHF radio to call emergency services for help.

The police sent a rescue helicopter to pick up the survivors and take them to hospital. The skipper of the capsized boat was badly affected by hypothermia, having spent more than four hours in very cold water. Despite this, the survivors were released within hours of admission.

A large-scale search was launched to find the bodies of the two missing men, but this was hampered by the dark and by deteriorating weather conditions. Eventually the body of one man was found on a beach, and the other was retrieved from the sea nearby. The vessel was recovered and examined by MNZ. The examination revealed no defects to suggest the vessel was unseaworthy.

In the skipper’s words

Six months ago I lost my son and my best friend in a boating accident when I was the skipper. I’ve been boating for 30 years, with some commercial sea time, got my boat masters and VHF tickets, and took being a skipper seriously.

Lifejackets were always worn and up to date with safety gear on board (with an EPIRB, cellphone and VHF radio in arms reach). I had a big, solid, well-serviced boat and was prepared for any emergency that could possibly happen, or so I thought.

In the blink of an eye we were upside down, in a submerged boat swimming for our lives. Don’t think ‘It won’t happen to me’ because it can happen to anyone. Prepare for ‘the worst’. Have your communication equipment on you at all times, get a lifejacket with pockets for an EPIRB (or PLB) and waterproof VHF radio, or get pockets sewn on your old one.

Your friends and family are relying on you as skipper to get them back home safely after a day on the water.

All I needed was one working form of communication – once in the water – and we would all still be here. After four hours of swimming for our lives I had to check my son’s and my mate’s bodies for signs of life, make the decision to leave them there, to carry on and maybe, if lucky, save myself and two more friends’ lives.

Not a day goes by without thinking about my son and mate and my wishing they were still here.


  • Even if you have the right equipment, there may not be time to use it when something unexpected happens. The boat was carrying several means of communication, including a distress beacon (EPIRB), flares and radio, but once people were in the water, they had no way of calling for help and their cellphones wouldn’t work.
    • The EPIRB was on the vessel’s console, but things happened so fast there was no time to grab it. The skipper tried to dive back into the cabin to retrieve it, without success.
  • Take at least two types of emergency communication that will work when wet and carry them on your person, so you will be able to access them in an emergency, rather than somewhere else in the boat, even if you don’t consider there is a high level of risk. Many lifejackets have pockets or attachments that enable a VHF, distress beacon or cellphone to be carried in them.
    • If not carried on your person, a floating grab bag within arm’s reach may be able to be more easily accessed than fixed or stowed gear.
  • To prevent cellphones getting wet, put them in a sealed or ziplock plastic bag. A cellphone is only useful if there is coverage but can be useful as a backup means of emergency communication.
  • Lifejackets should be worn, not stowed under seats or forward in the cabin. All of the crew were wearing lifejackets and all survived the first four hours in the water. The skipper acknowledged that had they not been wearing lifejackets, it is likely that none of them would have survived.
  • Tell someone responsible about your plans. Be as specific as you can about your intended location, how many people are on board and when you intend to return. The more information you can provide, the better coordinated and faster a rescue effort can be. You must also have your own means of calling for help in case, as happened in this tragedy, an accident happens early in the trip.
  • Waters in the area where the vessel capsized were known to be often rough and capable of producing large waves that can capsize smaller vessels. Although survivors and the rescuer described the conditions as moderate, locals expressed concern that the vessel had departed in the conditions prevailing at the time.
  • Mariners should operate with caution in areas where large waves can be encountered and watch out for them. Skippers must be prepared to make a sudden manoeuvre to place their vessel in the correct position to survive large waves. In many vessels, this requires the bow to be positioned towards the oncoming wave.
  • The power and unpredictability of the sea should not be underestimated, as the sea state can change within minutes. This can put you and your crew in danger and endanger the safety of those who come to your assistance. Always expect the unexpected and ensure that you have done all you can to prepare for emergency situations.

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