Capsized kayaker swims across harbour

Lookout! Issue 35, June 2016

Years of swimming experience helped a capsized kayaker endure hours in Wellington harbour last December, while holding on to his lifejacket and kicking and ‘crab-crawling’ with the current across the harbour entrance.

The father of two acknowledges he is lucky to be alive after his first-ever paddle in a friend’s kayak off the South Coast went scarily wrong.

He was planning to fish off the kayak, and although he had spotted the white caps offshore, he did not register the potential danger that the off-shore wind created. It was as the man paddled to outer rocks that he realised he had gone too far beyond calm waters.

The southerly swell caught the kayak when he was beam-on to the waves and he capsized about 10 metres from the rocks. The sea was too lumpy to get back on-board so the man tried to swim back to the rocks tugging the kayak. But the wind was blowing him further off-shore and he was unable to raise the alarm.

The man was not sure his friends realised what had happened and he was about 500 metres off-shore when he decided to swim back without the kayak.

Years of swimming club experience as a youngster, and snorkeling off the Wairarapa Coast as an adult, meant the man was confident and strong in the water and not prone to panic. Yet he knows he made a big mistake in taking off his lifejacket to shed water-logged clothing.

He could not put the lifejacket back on again in the swell and instead hooked it through a leg and held it to his chest. After half-an-hour he gave up trying to swim back to the Moa Point area as the current was too strong. He decided to strike out for Pencarrow Head on the other side of the harbour entrance, and began paddling with the current that was running diagonally across the harbour entrance and out to the Cook Strait.

The swimmer’s efforts helped him to make progress. After about 90 minutes he could hear the surf and was in sight of land. However, his energy was almost depleted, and he estimated he had only another 15 minutes of endurance remaining. When he was rescued his body temperature was down to 29 degrees.

Though the man’s friends had taken some time to become aware they should raise the alarm, Wellington Maritime Police, Wellington Coastguard and Wellington Airport emergency services were by then all out searching to no avail over on the western side of the harbour entrance and South Coast.

The swimmer was running very low on energy when the Westpac Rescue helicopter spotted him near Pencarrow Lighthouse.

The man says the thought of his two children kept him going. He used the last of his energy to strike out for the helicopter winch line, as the down-draft from the chopper was pushing him below the swells. A rescue swimmer was lowered into the water to assist before the pair were winched aboard.

The experience has not put the man off kayaking in the future, but it has made him a lot more aware of the dangers of the sea, and the need for safety precautions – checking the sea conditions, taking communications such as a cellphone in a waterproof bag or VHF radio, and wearing a properly fitted lifejacket.


  • Never take off your lifejacket to shed bulky clothing, or for any other reason, when in an emergency situation away from shore.
  • Off-shore winds and currents can be very dangerous in any part of the country.
  • Recreational boaties must plan ahead. They need to understand the environment they are heading into, know the limits of their abilities, and not take unnecessary risks.
  • If you are an inexperienced kayaker, only go out in light weather conditions, and stay close to shore and within sight of companions.
  • Take care also to stay within the lee of headlands or rocky outcrops.
  • Always carry two forms of communication that work when wet. For example a cellphone in a waterproof bag, a two-way radio or VHF radio, and/or flares.
  • While a capsized kayaker would be more visible for a rescue if he remained with the vessel, the kayak can also be more susceptible to wind and currents dragging the user off-shore.
  • When in an emergency situation in the water, stay calm, use whatever buoyancy aids are available, and huddle for warmth. Generally it is advised that you stay where you are – so it is easier for rescuers to calculate where to search for you.

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