Delayed mayday adds to fatal mix

Lookout! Issue 35, June 2016

A long night of drinking, followed by cocktails with breakfast, were a lethal mixture for an experienced yachtsman swept overboard without a lifejacket off the coast of the South Island.

Aged in his 50s, the man continued drinking beers after he and a female sailing companion returned to his yacht from the meal ashore, the Coroner’s Court heard. The sea was reasonably calm when they motored off for their next destination later that morning, though they decided not put up the main sail due to the weather. Soon the woman saw the man falling asleep in the cockpit, and suggested several times he go below for a rest – which he eventually did.

As the 11-metre vessel neared a cape, the woman saw the swell was building to around three metres, and advised her sailing partner to come back on deck. The woman was wearing wet weather gear, a lifejacket, and was harnessed to the boat. The man emerged from the cabin wearing wet weather gear but no lifejacket.

He was not tied on when a large wave hit the yacht, while the woman was steering, and he was washed into the sea. She threw him a life ring and managed to reverse the yacht close to where he was keeping himself afloat by lying on his back. He ignored suggestions to remove some outer gear and his full-length sailing boots.

After throwing several ropes to the man, so he could make himself a sling, the pair tried to pull, and then winch, him aboard. When the ropes kept slipping, and they did not have enough strength, the woman said she was going to call for help – but her companion appealed to her not to do so.

Knowing he was tied on, the woman returned to the cockpit to slowly motor through a pass to avoid being dashed on rocks. Once clear they again disagreed about whether to call for help. The woman said if they did not manage to get him back on deck in five minutes she was putting out a radio call regardless.

When further efforts failed to get him on board – and with the vessel drifting away from land – the woman finally put out a mayday call on Channel 16 about 2.30pm. She then tried to help again, but realised that the man was getting cold and was starting to fade. His hearing was affected and his eyes were glazing over.

The sea was still heavy, and the woman had to be careful not to fall in herself as she went between the radio and checking on her stranded companion. About 40 minutes after she put out the appeal for help, a rescue helicopter hovered overhead. By now the man had been in the water for well over an hour.

A rescue paramedic was dropped into the sea and found the man exhausted and unable to speak. The rescue was hampered by the tangle of ropes, and the man’s water-logged wet weather gear and boots. Winching eventually began, with the paramedic trying to open the man’s airway while they were being pulled up. At this stage it appeared he was no longer breathing.

The man’s harness had ended up being on in reverse, due to problems in the water, so there were further difficulties getting him into the door of the helicopter – even with the help of a crewman on board.

The pilot lowered the helicopter and the man slipped from the harness back into the water from about 3–5 metres in height. There were no signs of life as he re-entered the water. The paramedic immediately followed him, and was able to put the harness on more easily, clear of debris and without his jacket on. The man was winched aboard and taken to Wellington Hospital, but could not be revived. A post mortem examination revealed a blood alcohol level of 182 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood – more than three times the current legal limit for driving a motor vehicle.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • Alcohol impairs judgment. This experienced yachtsman consumed alcohol throughout the evening, and then had three cocktails over breakfast, before continuing to drink beers as he and his sailing companion set off on their journey.
  • Once he was swept into the water the alcohol probably affected his judgment about the danger he was in; and the danger to which he subjected his crew member as she tried to help get him aboard – while having to single-handedly manage the vessel.
  • If he had been less inebriated the man may have been more effective in helping himself re-board; and/or more likely to agree they needed help as soon they were unable to manage the task.
  • This tragedy is also a telling lesson for anyone sailing with someone who has impaired judgment. The woman should have over-ridden from the outset the boat owner’s objections to seeking help.
  • Had the man been wearing a lifejacket, preferably with a crotch strap, he would have been able to support himself more easily in the water. Once the paramedic arrived he may still have been responsive and able to assist in putting on the rescue harness.
  • Instead, the paramedic had to protect the man’s head from smashing into the boat, while trying to put on the harness when he was unresponsive and in a tangle of ropes and bulky wet weather gear.
  • In heavy seas it is vital for yachties to wear their lifejackets; and they should harness themselves to their vessels, especially when short-handed.
  • Boaties in distress, or in potentially lifethreatening situations, should call for help early, before situations escalate out of control and become increasingly perilous.
  • The Coroner also recommended the rescue helicopter service consider using a rescue harness with a crotch strap for winching.

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