Driver error leads to jet boating fatality

Lookout! Issue 34, December 2015

Swapping drivers towards the end of a day’s jet boating on several rivers contributed to the death of a passenger, after he was injured when the boat struck a large rock and flipped.

The man, in his 60s, was found lying face-down in the river, apparently unconscious. The other occupants, and passengers of a boat ahead, carried him to shore, and set off a personal locator beacon to alert rescue services.

At that point, the man was able to let his companions know he had a sore back and was having difficulty breathing. As the party was in a remote location, it was six hours before he was finally able to be delivered to hospital by helicopter. He had multiple fractures, and suffered a fatal heart attack during emergency surgery – which was complicated by an existing heart condition.

Accident site
The rocks at the site where the jet boat flipped.
Maritime New Zealand ©2019

The Coroner found that changing the driver, late in the afternoon on a relatively unfamiliar downstream stretch of the river, caused the crash that led to the man’s death.

The new driver had considerable experience in his own smaller boat but had only driven his friend’s jet boat a few times. He seemed unsure of the boat’s handling and performance. The accident happened on a more difficult downstream stretch of river. The jet boat hit a rock, and the driver failed to accelerate away from crashing into another larger rock – which caused the vessel to overturn.

The boat was only a few years old and well maintained. The group of nine, travelling in a convoy of four boats, was well organised, with everyone wearing lifejackets. Other essential equipment was on-hand, such as a first aid kit, spare clothing and a personal locator beacon.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • This combination, of relatively untested waters and a driver that did not have a lot of experience with the boat, adds to the potential dangers of jet boating.
  • Drivers should be thoroughly familiar with the handling and performance of their craft before they get behind the wheel.
  • Downstream stretches are often more difficult to navigate, and less experienced drivers are advised to take their turn at the wheel travelling upstream instead.
  • This party had boated several rivers before deciding to turn around at 4.30pm when they were unsure of their ability to negotiate rapids further upstream. Fatigue may have been a factor and needs to be taken into account when planning day outings.
  • The members of the party were well prepared for an emergency, with a personal locator beacon, first aid kit and spare gear such as dry clothing. Additionally, it would have been useful to contact the commercial jet boat operator for that river to get information about its conditions ahead of the trip, and carry a hand-held VHF radio.
  • There is no guarantee that use of the radio would have sped up the rescue – but it may have helped. In addition to immediately setting off a beacon, one of the drivers of the other boats, and a passenger, did rush downriver to where they launched, and drove to the nearest farmhouse to telephone for assistance.
  • The Coroner ruled that the time taken to retrieve the injured man and transfer him to hospital was understandable due to the remote location of the accident.
  • A copy of the overall Finding was sent to the New Zealand Jet Boat Association, with a request that the outcomes be notified to members, to discourage other relatively inexperienced jet boaters from taking control of a boat in areas of significant hazard.

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