Boat hits rocks in darkness

Lookout! Issue 30, December 2013

A 36-foot (11 metre) wooden launch with three people on board struck rocks close to an island at night, in calm conditions and in waters the skipper was familiar with.

The vessel hit the rocks while returning from a day’s fishing. The skipper, who had travelled the same route many times and spent years fishing in the area, said it was pitch black and he was relying on GPS (displaying latitude and longitude coordinates) and radar for the trip home.

When he switched the radar to depth to make sure he was in deep water, it showed 25 metres. But as he looked back at the GPS, the boat struck rocks.

Vessel stuck by rocks
A 36-foot launch with three people on board struck rocks close to an island at night.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

The men made a mayday call to Coastguard and put on lifejackets before abandoning the boat to swim to a rock about 30 metres away. After waiting for a while, the skipper swam back to the boat to retrieve some flares when he realised the vessel hadn’t sunk. These were set off when the Coastguard vessel came into view about two hours after the men had abandoned ship.

The Coastguard located the men and took them back to the mainland, where one received medical attention for a dislocated shoulder. The other two men sustained minor injuries.

Over the next few days, the boat broke up and most of it sank.


  • The men made the right safety decisions when their boat hit rocks. The actions they took – putting on lifejackets, making the distress radio call to Coastguard and using flares – were essential to their successful rescue.
  • The mayday call to Coastguard meant they were able to raise the alarm using the vessel’s fixed VHF radio, but they had no means of communicating, apart from flares, once the vessel started sinking. They did have a cell phone in a waterproof bag, but there was no coverage.
    • It is recommended that boaties carry on their person at least two waterproof means of calling for help. These could be a 406MHz distress beacon (PLB or EPIRB), hand-held VHF radio or cell phone in a plastic bag (if there is coverage). Fixed VHF radios have a greater range than hand-held models, but can become inaccessible in an emergency situation.
  • After retrieving the flares, the men had the presence of mind to wait until a boat was in view before setting them off. Flares are a very effective form of communication, but only when they can be seen.
  • In this case, the men had enough time and awareness to put on lifejackets. These can increase survival time and reduce people’s tendency to panic if they unexpectedly end up in the water. While a larger vessel can appear safer, lifejackets should be stored in a readily accessible location in case it sinks quickly.
    • In many emergency situations, there is not enough time to retrieve and put on lifejackets, and MNZ recommends that lifejackets are worn at all times by people on vessels under 6 metres and by all on board vessels at times of heightened risk (such as when crossing a bar and in rough weather).
  • Skippers need to keep a lookout using all available means. The incident may have been avoided altogether had the skipper understood the limitations of the vessel’s electronic instruments, and not exclusively relied on these to ensure safe navigation. While it can be an advantage for boaties to have GPS and radar on board, the equipment’s usefulness is limited if it is not operated in a manner appropriate to the conditions.
    • Even in familiar waters, charts are needed to remind skippers of where dangers exist. GPS is a very useful aid to navigation, but should not be solely relied upon.
  • Boaties should consider taking a training course with Coastguard or a maritime school to make sure they have all the skills they need to operate their vessel safely.
    • In particular, when using radar they need to know how to set it to ‘ship head up’ or ‘north up’, and understand the difference. They also need to learn how to tune the radar and identify what range they are on, and know how to dim the screen at night.

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