Crew member dies after high-speed race capsize

Lookout! Issue 28, April 2013

A crew member died after being thrown from a powerboat when it overturned during a high-speed race on a tidal lake.
Yacht
Maritime New Zealand ©2019
The outboard motor was torn from the boat, when it went sideways and capsized, throwing both the deriver and crew member into the lake.

The race, an annual event, has a course of about 34 kilometres, raced in two phases. The boats travel anti-clockwise in the first phase and clockwise in the second. Vessels taking part have to comply with strict boating criteria and are inspected by an approved scrutineer before the race gets underway.

MNZ allows the maritime rules relating to speed to be uplifted for the event. However, it does impose conditions governing race safety, public safety, oil spill response, litter and the need to advertise the event.

The accident involved a 5.6 metre powerboat purpose-built for marathon racing at speeds up to 120 km/h. While it was the crew member’s first time crewing in a race, the skipper was highly experienced. Water conditions and visibility on the day were considered good.

The first phase of the race was completed without incident. Then, during the first lap of the second phase, now travelling in a clockwise direction, the boat crossed the wake of another boat while rounding a buoy, and as it crossed back the skipper lost control. He later said it felt as though the boat slid sideways in the back.

The boat went sideways to the course and capsized, throwing both the driver and crew member into the lake. The outboard motor was torn from the boat, with a portion of the transom still attached.

Rescue boats were quickly on the scene and a paramedic, who was crewing in another of the race boats, administered first aid. The skipper and crew member were able to swim to the boats and then walk on land, but the crew member’s condition began to rapidly deteriorate. She was transferred to hospital by ambulance with serious chest and head injuries, and died three days later.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • The boat was salvaged from the lake and examined. Investigators considered the vessel to be in good overall condition with no mechanical faults that might have caused the accident.
    • The skipper was experienced and operated safely within the race context, with no evidence of having operated in a reckless or dangerous manner.
  • The exact cause of the capsize was not able to be established, and is thought to have been the result of a combination of factors as outlined below.
  • During racing, there is minimal contact between the hull of each boat and the water surface, and the lack of friction combined with high speed allows little room for error – any handling or mechanical errors can quickly result in a major accident.
    • Riding over the wake would have exposed even more hull and further reduced the control and/ or manoeuvrability of the vessel.
  • There was evidence of a structural fault in the transom, caused by the plywood becoming wet and delaminated over time, possibly following a collision the boat had some months earlier. This fault may have been what caused part of the transom to separate from the boat with the engine attached. However, it was not clear whether the transom broke and caused the accident, or broke in the accident.
  • Race organisers always ensure the water depth of the lake is adequate for speedboat events. If this had not been the case, as a boat rides over the wake of a boat in front, it could drop into the hollow formed by the wake and strike the bottom of lake while travelling at high speed. This possibility was considered and discounted.
  • At the coronial hearing for the crew member, the ambulance service criticised the race organisers for not having had independent, dedicated rescue personnel at the event.
    • Organisers should conduct a risk analysis to ensure appropriate levels of rescue and ambulance care for events involving highspeed and potentially dangerous racing.
    • When the accident occurred, a competitor in the race (who was also an off-duty paramedic) had needed to abruptly switch roles to act as a rescuer.
    • MNZ is currently amending uplifting procedures for high-speed events to ensure paramedics are on hand should anything go wrong.
  • The coroner also recommended that the fitting of seatbelts should be considered, to prevent those on board from being thrown from boats during racing.

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