Men drown checking craypots

Lookout! Issue 31, August 2014

Two experienced boaties drowned after their small fishing boat became flooded at sea and they ended up in the water.
Submerged boat
Maritime New Zealand ©2019
The partially submerged boat was found about 200m from shore.

When the men’s bodies were found, one was not wearing a lifejacket and the other man’s lifejacket had not inflated and was found to be unserviceable.

The men had set off in the morning to uplift crayfish pots. Several hours later, a boatie out picking up pots noticed a partially submerged boat in the water about 200m from shore. There had been no distress signal in the area.

He motored across to the boat, which was floating with its bow out of the water and the stern submerged. Unable to find anyone in the water, he motored towards the shoreline and carried out a search there before returning to the boat ramp and reporting the incident.

A short while later, searchers in an inflatable boat found the partially submerged fishing boat and established that no-one was trapped underneath it. Soon afterwards, a search helicopter located one man’s body on the shoreline, about 300m from where the boat had first been seen. The man was wearing an inflatable lifejacket, but it was not inflated.

Several hours later, a boatie out picking up pots noticed a partially submerged boat in the water about 200m from shore.

The search continued the following day, until a helicopter sighted the second man’s body in the water. He was not wearing a lifejacket.

When the 16 foot (about 5m) fibreglass boat was recovered from the water and inspected, the 60 horsepower motor was in gear, with the throttle in the full forward position. The anchor was still on board and the davit used for lifting crayfish pots was in the lifting position, but the lifting rope was missing.

There were no witnesses to the incident and no obvious damage to the vessel, making it difficult to determine exactly what had caused the vessel to flood.

The engine was in gear with the throttle in the full forward position and there was a swell up to 2m running from the south at the time.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • The likely cause of death for both men was drowning. While the circumstances of the boat’s flooding and the men’s subsequent drowning could not be definitively established, the men stood little chance of surviving when they went into the water without wearing properly functioning and appropriately sized lifejackets, and without any means of calling for help.
    • The men’s heavy woollen clothing and gumboots may have given some protection against the effects of the cold water and the onset of hypothermia, but their ability to stay afloat would have been impeded by not wearing serviceable lifejackets. Their clothing would have become waterlogged and their boots filled with water, weighing them down.
    • Witnesses confirmed that one of the men, a retired commercial fisherman, was known to not wear a lifejacket because he thought those he kept on board were too bulky and would get in the way while fishing. He may have thought he would have time to put on a lifejacket if he needed to, or would be able to put on a lifejacket once in the water.
    • Incidents at sea usually happen very quickly, particularly in small boats, and there may not be time to put on a lifejacket. A lifejacket’s buoyancy also makes it extremely difficult to put on once you are in the water.
  • The other man was wearing an inflatable lifejacket when he was found on the beach, but it was not inflated. The gas cylinder that provides the gas to inflate the lifejacket was found to be empty, and the oral inflation tube had not been used.
    • The lifejacket belonged to the man. On initial inspection, it may have appeared to be in good working order, but the empty gas cylinder meant that once in the water it would not inflate automatically or by pulling the manual inflation toggle. It could only have been inflated if the wearer had used the inflation tube to ‘blow up’ the lifejacket. When someone is plunged into cold water, it can be difficult to find the inflation tube and blow enough air into the lifejacket to inflate it.
    • The lifejacket had probably been inflated previously, intentionally or by accident, and then been deflated and repacked without the cylinder being recharged.
    • It is vitally important to maintain all lifejackets in an operational condition. Ensure that you are familiar with the operation and servicing of your lifejacket. It will not be apparent that a lifejacket has been inflated and repacked unless the cylinder is checked. Cylinders can also leak gas slowly over time, and a lifejacket may become unserviceable even if it hasn’t been inflated. Ask an approved service agent to check that the cylinder is still full and to generally assess the condition of your lifejacket.
  • The men had no way to signal for help when they ended up in the water. Had they carried some means of communicating with people on shore, or had a way to call for help when they got into trouble, the outcome could have been quite different. You should carry at least two types of emergency communication that will work when wet, such as a cellphone sealed inside a plastic bag, a waterproof VHF radio, or a distress beacon. Carry them on your person rather than just on the boat, so that they can be accessed in an emergency.

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