Overloaded dinghy has fatal outcome

Lookout! Issue 34, December 2015

Overloading a dinghy in strong currents, and wearing an unclipped lifejacket, proved a fatal mistake for a man who drowned only metres from a jetty.
Lagoon
Fishing and Outdoors ©2019
The incident occured in a lagoon, where the men had decided to go fishing.

Three men with a combined weight of almost 350 kilograms were heading out for a fishing trip on a lagoon, in a 3.6 metre aluminium dinghy designed to carry a maximum weight of around 200 kilograms.

The skipper, in his 60s, who was not a strong swimmer, was wearing work boots, heavy clothing, and a lifejacket that was not properly fastened. He started the outboard motor of his dinghy at the boat ramp but it was immediately affected by the fast-running tide. A crewman was holding the wharf and boat from the stern, trying to steady it, but had to let go of both when fishing rods in the rod holder got caught on the wharf and pressed against his head. 

He fell backwards on to the side of the dinghy, causing it to capsize and begin to sink, with the three men ending up in the water.

The strong current made it very difficult to swim to safety, with heavy clothes dragging the trio down. Two were wearing lifejackets that were not properly fastened, and the crewman who fell had yet to put his lifejacket on, though it was in the boat. He swam to the end of the sinking vessel, then struck out for the end of the wharf. At that point he heard the skipper yelling for help and tried to swim to him, but was having difficulty staying afloat himself.

People on another nearby jetty threw drums to the skipper hoping he would reach out for one, and use it as buoyancy. Seeing this, the crewman swam back to where a woman on the wharf was holding out a stick. He grabbed it to steady himself, then reached for a rope tied to the wharf, which he held on to for a rest.

The third man was left hanging from the wharf railing when the boat capsized. He could only hold his weight briefly before dropping into the water. His lifejacket was unclipped, and came off straight away. Kicking off his shoes and shedding his heavy jacket stopped him from sinking, and he got himself to safety.

Meanwhile, members of the public were still trying to help the skipper who was struggling to keep his head above water. One man had jumped in to help but was unable to support the skipper’s weight by himself. Another man jumped in to help, but the skipper was already unresponsive. A third man paddled a dinghy over to help support the sinking man, and the three pulled him back to shore, and on to the jetty.

A passing nurse performed CPR until Police and Ambulance arrived to take over, but the skipper did not survive.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • This tragedy highlights how important it is to wear your lifejacket, properly fitted and done up, before going out on the water.
  • Had their lifejackets been worn properly, this man would have had a much better chance of survival, and his companions would not have had such close calls.
  • Heavy clothing hampers your ability to stay afloat if you end up in the water from an unforeseen accident. This man wore his work boots as he had just finished mowing lawns, and went straight out on the boat. When his boat capsized, and he was trying to keep afloat without the help of a lifejacket, the extra weight of the heavy boots dragged him down. This shows the choice of clothing and footwear that is worn when boating can sometimes be critical to staying safe.
  • Overloading a vessel can be a major factor in capsizing incidents. In this case, the weight of the three men, along with equipment such as the tackle box and chilly bin, was almost double what the dinghy was designed for. The boat was already destabilised, riding low in the water, and at increased risk of capsizing, when the crewman stumbled and put his full weight on the edge of the dinghy.
  • Incorrectly loading a vessel also destablises it. In this case two of the crew were in the stern at the time of the capsize, instead of the three men dispersing their weight along the length of the dinghy.
  • The outboard motor may also have caused the dinghy to jump forward when it was started, as it was a model without a clutch. This may have been another reason why the crewman fell. The dinghy would also have been difficult to steer as the skipper was not able to properly attach the motor to the transom. Ensuring that a motor can be fitted properly to a vessel, and is regularly serviced, is essential for safe boating.
  • The dinghy had no buoyancy chambers fitted to enable the hull to support people in the water in the event of capsize. Polystyrene or a similar material can be fitted under the seats to ensure older vessels, without these chambers, remain buoyant in such situations.

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