Notorious bar claims fisherman

Lookout! Issue 31, August 2014

The skipper of a trawler died after it rolled while crossing a river bar. All three on board were thrown into the water, but only two survived.
Trawler capsizing
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The trawler capsized and rolled while crossing a river bar half an hour before forecast low tide.

The 15m wooden vessel was returning to port after six days at sea trawling. The skipper advised the ship’s owner that he would steam up to outside the bar first, to assess the conditions, and would cross at about 10am if they were favourable. However, the vessel arrived at the bar around 7am, and set out to cross at about 7.30am – just half an hour before the forecast low water.

Those aboard prepared for the bar crossing, with the skipper and one crew in the wheelhouse and the other keeping lookout at the stern of the boat, but none put on a lifejacket. The lookout warned the skipper about four big swells, which passed beneath the stern without incident.

Then a bigger wave built and the lookout counted it in. “Four, three, two, one.” The wave broke on the stern and as the vessel was lifted up, it listed to port and capsized.

When the lookout saw water and sparks coming from the front quarter of the wheelhouse, he knew something was wrong.

A man watching from the shore said there were initially no big waves as the vessel approached the bar, but then he saw a wave stand up behind the vessel, making it broach and roll onto its side. He expected the vessel to right itself, but it did not. As he phoned 111, he saw all three on board clamber onto the upturned hull. He estimated that it was less than a minute before a wave washed them back into the water.

Crew sitting on upturned hull
From the shore, three men were seen sitting on the upturned hull.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

The two crew grabbed onto a lifebuoy ring and were eventually swept onto the beach, where they were helped ashore. The skipper could be seen floating in the water, but conditions were considered too dangerous for a rescue to be attempted by swimming to him from the rocks.

It was only when someone swam out from the beach, clear of the rocks, that the skipper could be dragged onto the beach. CPR was administered, but he could not be revived.

The trawler sank just off the bar, creating a hazard for other vessels entering and leaving the harbour. It was a total wreck and had to be removed in several pieces by excavators over the following days.


  • The capsize happened at the approach to a river mouth where others have died while attempting to cross the bar. There have been many well-documented incidents of vessels crossing bars when they should not have done so.
    • This crossing was not in line with the “National code of practice for bar crossings”, and the fatality could probably have been avoided had the skipper waited a little longer and crossed the bar shortly before high water, as recommended, rather than shortly before low water.
  • „As the vessel crossed the bar, the weather and sea conditions were changing. The sea, previously relatively calm, built up quickly with larger and more difficult waves. Once committed to the crossing, the vessel appeared to have either struck the sea bed or bar, or had its stability affected by its proximity to them.
    • It is not unusual for conditions at a bar to change within minutes. Moderate seas can turn rough too quickly for a vessel that’s committed to its course to change direction and abort a crossing. This can put a vessel in grave danger at times of heightened risk, such as low tide.
  • „Vessels crossing a bar can be affected by the tide’s height, the water depth over the bar, the number of bars that have formed, the set of the sea, aeration of the wter by waves, the height and direction of the swell, how the vessel is positioned, and the vessel’s stability.
    • Fresh water flowing out of a river at a fast rate can also create a layer on top of the sea water and, having less buoyancy than the salt water, impair a vessel’s handling ability because it has to push harder into the additional current, particularly when inbound.
  • Some experts considered the vessel’s load had probably shifted, either before or when the large following wave lifted the vessel and bottomed it on a shoal of the bar. This load shift may have contributed to the vessel’s loss of stability and intensified its roll.
  • „No one on board was wearing a lifejacket as the vessel attempted the crossing, and the lifejackets became inaccessible following the capsize. The two crew managed to cling to a lifebuoy ring, which floated free during the capsize. They eventually made it to shore.
    • While he was only in the sea for a few minutes before being recovered, the skipper did not survive. But the support provided by a lifejacket may have been all he needed to ensure his survival.
    • In his findings, the coroner emphasised that even if fishermen do not routinely wear lifejackets, they should be worn at times of danger, and specially when crossing a river bar that has been known to claim lives in the past. He said that the ability of the skipper to exit the heelhouse in the event of a capsize need not be reduced by wearing a lifejacket if the door is latched open and other precautions taken to ensure clear access. Inflatable lifejackets are not bulky and are relatively comfortable to wear.
  • „Before his death, the skipper had recently consumed cannabis, with a medical expert saying it was likely that cannabis had been consumed during the trip.
    • As well as producing a sense of euphoria and relaxation, cannabis impairs thinking and coordination and reduces reaction times. The coroner concluded that while steering the vessel over the bar, at a hazardous time for himself and his crew, the skipper had been adversely affected by cannabis.
  • MNZ's investigation concluded that the capsize was probably caused by a combination of the timing of the crossing, the wave’s size and its impact on the vessel, the catch shifting and the vessel losing stability as it rolled through 90 degrees.
  • „Had the skipper waited a few hours for a higher tide, the vessel been loaded or configured in a different way, the skipper been wearing a lifejacket or not smoked cannabis, this tragedy may not have occurred.
    • Although he was known as a cautious and competent seafarer with many years of experience in crossing the river bar, the skipper’s error or errors of judgment on this day proved fatal.

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