Poor choices lead to tragedy

Lookout! Issue 33, June 2015

A young man died from cold-water immersion and two others were lucky to survive when the 4.6 metre boat they were on filled with water and rapidly sank in a South Island lake.
Cold water
Maritime New Zealand ©2019
The 4.6m boat rapidly sank after hull failure.

The Coroner has found that the sinking occurred when the auxiliary motor, under power, pulled the bracket it was attached to off the rear of the boat, creating hull failure with a hole in the transom. A Yamaha 25 HP outboard motor, weighing 50 kilograms, had been attached to a bracket intended for smaller outboard motors of up to 10 HP.

The man had owned the home-built fibreglass boat for only a few weeks and had little experience of operating or being in boats when he set out on the fishing trip with his friends. As the boat’s 115 horsepower outboard motor wasn’t working, a borrowed 25 HP auxiliary motor had been attached to the rear of the boat and was being used to power it on the lake.

Deciding to cross from the west of the lake to the opposite side, the skipper opened the throttle. The extra load imposed by the propulsion, combined with the weight of the engine on the mounting bracket, resulted in part of the transom tearing off – opening a large gash in the rear of the hull. The boat stopped and began taking on water. The men activated the bilge pump and used a rope to try to pull up the motor and bracket to close the hole, but water continued to pour in and they had no means of baling it out.

Two of the men not wearing lifejackets quickly put them on as the stern sank lower in the water. There was no radio on board to call for help, and they were well out of cellphone range. Within minutes, the boat was submerged and the men were in the very cold waters of the lake about 600–700 metres from the shore.

After briefly attempting to cling to the bow of the boat, which was still above water, the three companions struck out to try to swim ashore by lying on their backs and kicking.

About 20 minutes later, one man reached land. However, before he could raise the alarm he needed to run for 20 minutes to the boat ramp and then drive to the closest settlement. This meant it was another 90 minutes before he was able to call for help for his friends, who were still in the water.

During this time, a woman walking on a track alongside the lake heard shouting and noticed a boat near the opposite shore. She used the zoom function on her camera to try to work out what was happening, and could see what looked like dots in the water. She made her way to the carpark to try to raise help, but ended up having to drive for 30 kilometres to get cellphone reception before she could phone 111 and report what she thought was a boat sinking in the lake.

A search and rescue operation was immediately launched, with two jetboats and a helicopter dispatched to the lake. The helicopter crew located the boat and a body in the water about 100 metres away. The other man had made it safely ashore.

The Coroner recommended that this boating tragedy be highlighted, along with the clear lessons that can be drawn from the circumstances that resulted in the death of this young man.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • Multiple lessons can be learned from this tragedy. There was no reliable way to call for help in an emergency; the skipper was inexperienced and lacked any knowledge about operating a boat safely; and the auxiliary engine being used was too heavy and powerful for the mounting, resulting in damage leading to the sinking.
  • Having reliable communications equipment is essential to staying safe on the water. If you get into trouble and can’t call for help, nobody can rescue you. In this case, being able to raise the alarm quickly could have been a life saver, because the water was extremely cold – estimated to be about 7 degrees Celsius – and in these kinds of temperatures, a person is unlikely to survive for long.
  • The men were out of cellphone range, and although the boat had flares on board the incident happened too quickly and unexpectedly for the men to reach them and set them off before the boat sank.
  • On small vessels, you should carry waterproof communications equipment either on yourself or in a float-free bag. In this case, the men had no way of requesting assistance or alerting emergency services, apart from trying to swim to shore. They needed to have had at least two waterproof means of calling for help that would work in the area where they were boating, such as a distress beacon or waterproof handheld VHF radio carried in a pocket or float-free bag.
  • This could easily have been a triple fatality, had the men not had lifejackets. The two men who survived were fortunate to have had the chance to put on lifejackets – too often when disaster strikes without warning on the water, there is little or no time to put on and securely fasten a lifejacket before ending up in the water, and this can mean the difference between survival and death.
  • Wearing a lifejacket is the most basic boating safety measure. Maritime NZ and other water safety agencies recommend that all people on recreational boats up to 6 metres in overall length wear a properly fitting lifejacket at all times while underway. Then, if for any reason someone ends up in the water, they have a greater likelihood of being supported long enough to be rescued.
  • Even with a lifejacket, sudden cold-water immersion imposes huge stress on the body and dramatically reduces the time that a person is likely to survive. The deceased man was not a strong swimmer and may have panicked when he landed in the water, which means he could have used up valuable energy in the first minutes and depleted any reserves he might have been able to call on while attempting to swim the 600–700 metre distance to shore.
  • It is the responsibility of owners and skippers to make sure their vessel is seaworthy. They need to ensure their vessels are properly maintained and suitable for the boating activity they’re undertaking.
  • The skipper had owned his boat for only a few weeks and had no boating experience. He’d borrowed the 25HP auxiliary outboard motor, which weighed about 50 kilograms, for the day because the engine fitted to the boat wasn’t working. He mounted the motor to a bracket that was only rated for an auxiliary motor with a maximum of 10HP, without considering how the extra power might affect the ability of the boat to be operated safely.
  • The boat sank as a result of hull failure, when the transom broke off around the auxiliary outboard motor bracket while the boat was being operated. It is likely the weight of the engine and the extra load caused by the propulsion caused the transom to tear off.
  • The fibreglass hull, especially the transom area, was strong enough for the main engine and a small auxiliary engine on the bracket, but it was not strong enough for the bigger engine that was used that day.

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