Serious ‘slip-up’ on slipway

Lookout! Issue 29, August 2013

Two men were seriously injured and a third badly bruised when a routine operation to take a yacht out of the water for maintenance went awry. Only good fortune prevented someone being killed.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Three men were injured when they attempted to slip a yacht.

Three friends got together to slip a yacht, having arranged to use a slip service operated by an incorporated society of boat owners.

Two of the men rowed out to the yacht’s mooring to bring the yacht to the slipway cradle – in this case, a trolley that runs on rails in and out of the water – and the third crewman remained on shore.

They had received little in the way of instructions from the winch operator but, once on board, they were signalled to position the yacht in the cradle. It was not an operation they had carried out before.

Weather conditions were fine, but the noise created by a 15-knot wind hampered communication between the winch operator and the two crew on the yacht. Aside from shouted instructions, there was no other means of communication in place.

Things got off to a shaky start when the yacht overshot the cradle on the first attempt. The two crew then attempted to reposition the yacht but, unknown to them, it was still not in the right place in the cradle – this time being too far back.

As the men attempted to secure the yacht to the cradle, the winch operator started hauling without warning. The yacht immediately tilted up at an angle of 45 degrees as the keel slipped backwards. The winch operator had assumed the vessel’s keel design was similar to another type of vessel with a longer keel, but this was not the case.

At this point, the winch operator stopped the hauling process and left the winch shed to get a better view of the slipway and discuss the situation with the crewman who had remained on shore.

It was decided that the third crewman should row out in a dingy and try to help the other two men use their weight to get the bow down. Given the weight of the vessel – which weighed several tonnes – this was not a sensible approach.

Further confusion resulted, with all three men on the bow as the winch operator again tried to haul the yacht up. By this stage, the yacht was in an extremely dangerous position.

All crew should have left the vessel, but they were unaware of the danger and the three crew remained on the vessel’s bow.

As the hauling continued, the yacht’s bow rose higher, before dropping suddenly, which caused the keel to fall off the cradle entirely. All three men were sent into the air. One came down on the bollard on the bow, smashing his femur in two places, and another slid down the deck and broke two toes. The third man went over the side but fortunately managed to hold on. He suffered extensive bruising.

There was some delay in obtaining medical assistance, as there was confusion about the physical address of the site. Due to damage incurred as a result of the incident, the yacht is being written off by the owners’ insurers.


Following the accident, MNZ and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment conducted an investigation, as did the slipway incorporated society. They identified the following key safety messages:

  • All slipways need to give clear guidance to yacht owners before they slip their yachts. Terms and conditions, including health and safety requirements, should be agreed and signed before slipping vessels. Boat owners should be briefed on how to secure vessels to a cradle, and on yard safety procedures.
  • Keel design and shape need to be confirmed with the slipway, so that the most appropriate cradle can be used. This is vital to stop vessels falling off cradles. In this instance, the cradle was not appropriate for the yacht.
  • Clear communication procedures must be established before slipping a vessel (eg VHF radio or mobile phone).
    • In this case, communication between the vessel and the winch man was insufficient, especially given the noise from the wind. Weather limits for operation should also be established and followed.
  • Winch operators need to have clear sight of the slipway or a spotter in position.
  • If yachts reach what could be considered a dangerous angle, all crew must be evacuated to prevent serious harm.
  • Yards should have emergency procedures in place for incidents of this nature and accurate location information readily available for emergency services. This yard did not have emergency procedures in place. Following the accident, there was confusion about the physical address of the site, which is vital information for emergency services. The owners of the yacht had to call emergency services and arrange a crane to secure the yacht, which had been left in a dangerous position.
  • It is essential to have a team of experienced people on hand to assist with slippings. Manning levels in the yard and on board need to be appropriate to the task.
  • Yards need to have a good working knowledge of their obligations under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 – the society has obligations under the Act for the safety of yacht crews.
  • Under the Marine Transport Act, both yards and vessel owners are required to report accidents/incidents to MNZ.
  • Since the accident, the yard has extensively improved its safety and hazard management system, putting new in-depth procedures in place to ensure safer operation.

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