Skipper distracted as trawler heads for rocks

Lookout! Issue 32, December 2014 – January 2015

A fishing trawler steered by autopilot struck rocks after the skipper lost track of time while he was tidying up the wheelhouse.
Damaged hull
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Damage to the hull on the port side.

The 15 metre wooden vessel was steaming to fishing grounds in the early hours of the morning, with its radar and track plotter both in use.

The skipper, on watch while the other crewman slept, decided to alter course from the vessel’s usual track because an increasing groundswell and ebb tide were making the passage uncomfortable. He adjusted the autopilot to steer inside an island, through an area that was known to pose hazards (such as rocks and reefs) but well used by local fishers.

After tying down some loose gear on deck and deploying the paravanes – outriggers designed to limit the roll of a vessel - the skipper went into the wheelhouse. He became distracted while clearing up gear that had been thrown around, and lost awareness of how far the vessel had travelled. A flood tide had also begun to run and the vessel steamed further north than the skipper intended.

When the vessel struck rocks, the crewman was woken by the collision and rushed into the wheelhouse. Although the skipper directed him to get lifesaving gear ready, they managed to back the vessel off the rocks. After inspecting the inside of the hull for leaks, they were able to get back to port, using extra pumps and the assistance of another vessel.


  • The vessel grounded because the skipper lost situational awareness, and did not know the vessel’s position. By attempting to perform other duties at the same time, the skipper was not giving the task of lookout his full attention.
    • He did not meet his responsibility to keep a proper lookout by sight and hearing, as well as by all available means, while the vessel was underway.
  • Having made a change to the usual course, the skipper should have been fully alert to any changes in the weather and sea conditions, and actively searching for dangers. He needed to make full use of the technology on board his vessel - without delegating the responsibility for safe navigation to the equipment.
  • The skipper was very experienced. While fatigue was unlikely to have been a contributing factor - because the vessel was heading out to the fishing grounds rather than returning - complacency may have played a part.
    • Complacency and over-reliance on established routines can be dangerous when operating a regular run, and there is even less justification for a lookout relaxing their vigilance when navigating unfamiliar or tricky waters in darkness.

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