Trawler hits rock and sinks at harbour entrance

Lookout! Issue 32, December 2014 – January 2015

A fishing trawler returning to its home port hit a submerged rock and sank while navigating the harbour entrance in darkness.
Damaged trawler
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The damage to the hull was apparent after salvage.

The 13 metre wooden vessel was steaming home through the night, having cut short its fishing trip after its winch developed a mechanical problem while trawling. It had taken the three crew most of the day to haul in the fish and equipment before they were finally ready to leave the fishing grounds at about 8pm.

Once underway and having safely navigated past a potential trouble spot, the skipper went to bed and slept for two hours before taking the wheel once more. He was stationed at the helm, using the auto-pilot to steer the vessel. The GPS and radar were both operating, but the track plotter was old and not in use.

Damage to the forefoot
The damage to to the forefoot.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

Early in the morning, the trawler hit rocks as it entered the harbour. The two crew asleep in the fo’c’sle were woken by the crash and rushed up the stairs into the wheelhouse. One of them was drenched by seawater flooding in through a hole in the port-forward side of the hull.

The skipper instructed the crew to launch the liferaft and dinghy, while he issued a mayday call on the VHF radio.

One crew member grabbed the emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and torch, and the men abandoned ship, watching from the liferaft as their vessel sank. They were rescued a short time later by Coastguard and a port company pilot vessel.


  • This incident directly resulted from the vessel being navigated too close to the harbour entrance. This is due to a failure to line up the vessel’s approach to the entrance channel, which is clearly defined by marker beacons.
    • Under Maritime Rules Part 22, it is the skipper’s responsibility to maintain an effective lookout by sight, sound and all available means. Navigating at night requires extra precautions and vigilance due to the reduced visibility. Skippers should use every tool available and actively search for possible dangers in the darkness.
    • The vessel’s GPS was working and would have shown the vessel’s position, but the skipper should have been cross-checking with paper charts and plotting regular positions to keep the vessel clear of known hazards.
  • Fatigue is likely to have played a part in the skipper’s failure to keep a proper lookout. He had only two hours’ sleep before returning to the watch. Naps like this can provide a good defence for a while, but at least six hours (and preferably seven or eight hours) of uninterrupted sleep is recommended before starting work.
    • Even though the usual routine and operations had been disrupted by the mechanical breakdown, there should have been a procedure in place to manage fatigue and ensure the person on lookout was adequately rested.
  • The owner of the vessel was unaware that the trawler was still under the name of the previous owner until the incident was investigated. The new owner, having failed to register the change, could have been charged under the Maritime Transport Act with acting without the necessary maritime document.
    • The skipper could have been charged with the same offence, as well as being charged with operating a vessel in a way that caused unnecessary danger or risk to other people or property. In this instance, no charges were laid.

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