Skipper hits PWC on first outing in new boat
Lookout! Issue 31, August 2014
The victim, an experienced PWC operator, had just finished rebuilding his machine in readiness for competition in the freestyle PWC season. He'd taken it to the river to go through a series of engine tests.
The powerboat, a 5.5m aluminium fishing vessel, had been purchased just the previous week and its two new owners were taking it on its first outing. The skipper had no formal boating education and was unfamiliar with the section of river.
The vessels launched from the boat ramp within a short time of each other. About 900m south of the ramp the PWC rider had finished his tests and decided to turn back towards the boat ramp. He slowed virtually to a standstill, then applied the throttle and spun the ski on its axis to the left, unaware that the other vessel was approaching from behind at a speed in excess of 20 knots and was about to overtake him.
When the powerboat collided with the PWC, the rider was thrown backwards through the air and landed in the water. He remembered later that after his lifejacket brought him to the surface, he realised he’d been hit by a boat. The pain was beyond anything he’d known and he believed he was going to die.
The powerboat, significantly damaged in the collision, was used to transport the injured man back to the boat ramp. An ambulance met them there and transferred him to hospital, where he spent a week being treated for internal injuries, which included nine fractured ribs and sternum, a collapsed lung and lacerated spleen and liver.
While his physical recovery took a long time, he and his family also suffered serious psychological effects. He kept replaying the event in his mind and was unable to move forward with his life. As a result, his business and financial situation were also set back.
- 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.