Whitebaiter drowns after dinghy capsizes

Lookout! Issue 35, June 2016

A whitebaiter clad in heavy clothes and gumboots, but no lifejacket, drowned when his newly acquired dinghy capsized on a South Island river.
Retrieved dinghy.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The dinghy was found without the fisherman onboard.

Although a seasoned fisherman, the 65-year-old was not used to gathering whitebait from a boat. He told his wife he had decided to start using a dinghy, instead of whitebaiting from the shoreline, to enable him to net a bigger catch. He used a rope and pulley system to place nets in the river, secured by weights, and later retrieved them by boat. However, the three-metre dinghy the fisherman had purchased was an older, unstable model that was also in poor repair. The Coroner found the cause of death to be drowning after the dinghy overturned while the man was standing in the boat to adjust a whitebait net in the river.

The man had left home around 5am and was seen by a fellow whitebaiter sitting safely in his dinghy around midday – on the opposite side of the river to the fisherman’s hut and whitebaiting stand. He was not wearing a lifejacket.

When the witness motored back past the location not long afterward, he saw the dinghy had sunk with only the bow above the waterline. There was no sign of the fisherman. The passing man called the police and then travelled about 500 metres downstream to get the assistance of fellow regulars who whitebaited on that stretch of the river.

One had a larger boat with a pot hauler. The hastily assembled group lifted the dinghy by the bow until the engine cleared the water. They were unable to find the missing fisherman.

Police arrived and began searching. The body was found on the riverbed, near the submerged ropes and weights for the net, just five metres from shore.

The Coroner found that if the man had been wearing a lifejacket he would have been more likely to get to shore after falling in the water. By wearing gumboots – which would have immediately filled with water – and heavy clothing, including trousers and white PVC over-trousers, he also reduced his chances of saving himself.


  • Lifejackets save lives. This seasoned fisherman was only metres from shore when his boat overturned, but with his heavy clothing and gumboots would have struggled to stay afloat without a lifejacket. Had he been wearing his life jacket he would have had a far greater chance of reaching shore and saving himself.
  • Checking the stability and seaworthiness of vessels is paramount for safe boating and safe fishing on the water. This dinghy was an older, unstable model – in poor repair. A more stable vessel, in better condition, may not have capsized so readily.
  • A dinghy is not generally designed to be used by someone standing up. Extra care is needed if a vessel’s centre of gravity is changed by lifting a weight while standing.
  • Boaties should wear clothing that is both light and warm in case they end up in the water.
  • They should also don a well-fitted lifejacket, and fasten it properly, before going out on the water.

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