Lack of safety costs lives

Lookout! Issue 33, June 2015

An unseaworthy vessel that was overloaded has been ruled as contributing to the drowning of a man and his young son while out for a test run on a city harbour.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The boat capsized near the jetty.

An unseaworthy vessel that was overloaded has been ruled as contributing to the drowning of a man and his young son while out for a test run on a city harbour.

Alcohol was also a contributing factor, along with the lack of any lifejackets for the man, in his mid 40s, and four children on-board the 3.5 metre aluminum dinghy.

The Coroner has found that both drownings were avoidable, and has concluded that four out of the five safety factors identified by Maritime New Zealand, as being important for safe boating, were not observed by the skipper.

The five key messages spread through safety campaigns for the estimated 900,000 pleasure craft operating in New Zealand are:

  • Wear lifejackets
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Check the seaworthiness of your vessel
  • Check the weather forecast
  • Carry two means of emergency communication that are kept dry, or work when wet

Conditions were windy when the man launched the dinghy at a boat ramp, with four young members of his family, aged 2-10.

The boat had been recently purchased by his wife, and did not have a bung plug. The previous owner swapped in a bung plug from another vessel when using it. Buoyancy tanks were under the seats, that were constructed at gunwale level, making the dinghy unstable and likely to capsize.

Witnesses could see the boat appeared overloaded – the man was at the stern controlling the motor, and the children at the bow – with only a small amount of the vessel’s sides above the waterline.

The skipper had done a U-turn and was heading back when a witness heard children yelling for help as the boat began to sink. Not far from the jetty the skipper got up to get the tackle box and capsized the boat, which sank very quickly.

The five occupants were pulled away from shore by the outgoing current, with several of them struggling to hold the toddler above water level. Three of the children, including the two-year-old, were rescued by members of the public and emergency staff.

The bodies of the father and one son were later recovered from the harbour by the Police National Dive Squad. A post-mortem examination indicated the man had a blood alcohol level of at least twice the former limit for driving a motor vehicle of 80mg/100ml of blood.


  • This avoidable boating tragedy highlights the dangers of mixing alcohol and boating. Alcohol gives people a false sense of their situation. While the skipper should have checked the boat’s seaworthiness before taking a trip, he might have assessed the situation on the day more accurately if he had not been under the influence of alcohol.
  • Alcohol may have also resulted in the skipper having reduced coordination and balance, which, along with the unstable nature of the vessel, resulted in the boat capsizing.
  • Testing a vessel’s seaworthiness before leaving the shoreline is vitally important. The position of the buoyancy tanks meant this boat was unstable, and the engine was in poor condition. The purchaser and skipper did not realize the dinghy was missing its bung, which directly contributed to the capsizing as the boat was gradually sinking and becoming even more unstable.
  • These fatalities show how imperative it is to wear lifejackets. If all the occupants had been wearing lifejackets two fatalities might have been prevented. In this case, the lack of lifejackets put at risk the lives of the occupants, as well as increasing the risk for the members of the public who immediately got into the harbour to swim to their rescue.
  • Understanding New Zealand conditions – including harbour currents, and wind patterns and strengths - is a prerequisite to safe boating for recreational boaties and fishermen; whose main experience may be from other environments/countries.

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