Ignoring basic safety has tragic result
Lookout! Issue 27, December 2012
The party, including the owner of a 4.9 metre dory-style dinghy, set out for a fishing trip on a South Island highcountry lake. They arrived at a fishing club bach in the early evening and spent the rest of the evening drinking beer and a bottle of whiskey.
At around 9am the next morning, they set out in the dory, carrying only two lifejackets – despite the fact there were four people on board. None of the men actually wore a lifejacket, and no effort was made to check the weather forecast, despite the notoriously changeable nature of conditions on the high-country lake. No one in the party took any means of communicating with anyone on land.
The men said they took a dozen cans of beer and a bottle of whiskey with them, consuming the alcohol as they paddled slowly around the lake fishing. At around 2pm, having finished the beer, they called in to visit a friend at another bach, where they had snacks to eat and more alcohol, this time rum.
Some time between 3pm and 4pm, the party left for the return trip, leaving behind one of the lifejackets for the friend, at his request.
By this time, however, the wind had picked up to an estimated 16 knots (30km/h), with gusts of 27 knots (50km/h) recorded. The men rowed towards the middle of the lake where, for some reason still not established, the dinghy capsized.
All four ended up in the cold lake water, clinging to the upturned boat, without any means of calling for help. Two of the men were good swimmers – two were not. No one was wearing the remaining lifejacket, which was later found by Police in the upturned vessel.
Once in the water, the men drifted with the boat for two hours, with the boat’s anchor occasionally snagging on the bottom of the lake.
At one point the men managed to right the vessel, but with no bailer it was impossible to increase its freeboard. They decided to capsize it again and use the air trapped under the hull to keep the boat afloat.
Eventually, one of the stronger swimmers elected to swim to shore to raise the alarm, reaching land and crawling through scrub before walking for help to the bach visited earlier in the day.
While he was away, the other strong swimmer helped the owner of the dinghy to shore, returning to the upturned boat for the last man.
At that point, however, the remaining man panicked, pushing his rescuer under and forcing him to abandon his rescue attempt and return to shore to recover.
The panicked man disappeared below the surface and drowned only 5–10m away from being able to stand up. His body was not found by the Police dive squad until the next day.
- MNZ has four key safety messages for boaties – all were ignored in this case. Wear lifejackets; avoid alcohol; carry two forms of emergency communications that will work when wet and check the weather. These are simple steps, but they can save lives.
- The law requires recreational boaties to carry enough lifejackets of the correct size for everyone on board, but there was just one lifejacket on board at the time of capsize and nobody was wearing it.
- MNZ recommends that everyone on board a boat under six metres in length wears a lifejacket at all times. Lifejackets must also be worn in situations where there is heightened risk (such as when crossing a bar or in rough weather) and should be worn at all times by children and non-swimmers.
- The men had been drinking a considerable amount of alcohol – the blood alcohol level of the deceased man was well in excess of the legal limit for driving. This is inconsistent with the amounts of alcohol the men reported they had consumed, and indicate that the man who died had consumed between 8 and 15 standard drinks (one standard drink is a can of beer or a double measure of spirits).
- MNZ recommends that boaties avoid drinking alcohol on board boats or limiting its consumption. Alcohol impairs reaction times and ability to survive if people end up in the water.
- The men had no means of communicating with anyone ashore and no way to call for help when they got into trouble.
- It is unlikely that cellphones would have had coverage in the area, but the party could have carried a waterproof VHF radio, a distress beacon ((personal locator beacon (PLB) or emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB)) and flares.
- Despite the well-known changeability of conditions in the area, the men did not check the weather forecast prior to setting out, or alter their plans when the weather changed.
- Check the weather before you decide whether to go out and monitor conditions and the forecast while you are out. If the weather turns rough, make sure everyone on board is wearing a lifejacket and head for shelter as soon as you can.
- The men were in an area where the water was very cold and expected survival times in the water were therefore shorter. The simple act of wearing a lifejacket would have reduced the wearer’s tendency to panic once they entered the water, as it would have supported them. Lifejackets also keep the wearer buoyant and allow them to conserve energy, enabling them to remain conscious in the water for a longer period of time.
- Although the exact cause of the capsize was not determined, the dory style of dinghy is well known for its stability, so some event (such as someone standing up in the boat) is likely to have taken place. Boaties should exercise caution when moving around in boats.
- Skippers are responsible for the safety of those on board their boats. An investigation by MNZ led to a criminal prosecution, with the owner of the dinghy found guilty of permitting the operation of a boat in a manner that caused unnecessary danger or risk to others. He was fined $500 and ordered to pay $2,500 reparation to the widow of the deceased man.