Capsize survivors have lucky escape

Lookout! Issue 27, December 2012

Two men had a lucky escape from harm after a large wave capsized their vessel as they motored into an inlet in darkness, but the outcome could have been very different.

The 17 metre fishing boat was inside the reefs when what the men described as a solid wall of water came crashing into the starboard side, rolling the boat and then flipping it over.

The force of the water pushed the skipper from the wheel down into the fo’c’sle, while a crew member on deck was washed over the side.

The skipper managed to free himself and get out from under the boat. He swam towards the other crew member and they floated in the water, clinging to life rings.

Other fishing vessels working in the area noticed the boat’s upturned hull and began searching for any people who might be in the water. The men had been in the water for about 30 minutes, when a boat spotted them and hauled them aboard.

The men were picked up by a rescue helicopter, flown by a pilot using night vision goggles, and taken to hospital.

Neither was injured, but one man had inhaled diesel and was vomiting. They considered themselves very lucky to have been rescued.

When last seen, the vessel was afloat upside down, washing in and out with the motion of waves in the reef area.


  • The area where the fishing boat was working has recently been the scene of other vessel capsizes in which people have died. In each case, the crews met the requirements for their class of vessel – they carried lifejackets and a manual distress beacon or EPIRB (emergency position-indicating radio beacon) on board. However, these are the minimum requirements, and fishers can do more to be prepared in the event of things going wrong.
  • The chances of survival and rescue once people are in the water are seriously diminished, but wearing lifejackets will keep them afloat and having the right communication devices ensures the alarm can be raised.
  • Fixed EPIRBs are a minimum requirement for commercial vessels, but these need to be accessed to be activated. If something goes wrong, they often can’t be reached in time. A float-free EPIRB can quickly alert rescuers when a vessel capsizes and people are in the water. The float-free EPIRB is a hands-off version that will look after itself and deploy should you get into trouble. This needs to be mounted where it will not get wet under normal circumstances and where it can float free of the vessel.
  • Portable waterproof communications devices, such as a VHF radio or personal locator beacon (PLB), are also recommended. With a PLB or VHF radio in your pocket, you can easily signal for help when something unexpected happens. While not mandatory, adopting these measures ensures all practicable steps have been taken to keep crew safe.
  • Although the two men were unable to call for help, they were fortunate that other vessels spotted something in the water, went for a closer look, raised the alarm and began the search. Keeping a lookout could not only save your life, it could help save the lives of others. Had the men not been spotted, it is unlikely they would have survived a night in the water.
  • Vessels that are loaded incorrectly or being operated in a way that doesn’t account for their cargo, and how it is loaded, can become vulnerable to capsize. Operators must understand the stability limitations of their vessels and load them in a way that will avoid capsize. For more information about how stability works on boats, read MNZ’s Vessel Stability Guidelines.

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