Crotch strap may have prevented jetski tragedy

Lookout! Issue 35, June 2016

A lifejacket with a crotch strap might have helped save the life of a jetskier, after he was tossed from his machine while crossing a river bar in the South Island last year.

The rider was not wearing a wet suit and his lifejacket rode up over his head, so it did not provide enough buoyancy to keep the man upright in breaking surf.

The man, in his forties, was with his brother and one other jetskier. The trio intended to cross the bar at the river mouth and ride down the coast to a popular beach.

The men did not follow the recommended procedure for crossing river bars. Instead of studying the conditions and assessing a safe way across, they each headed off in different directions. The first rider crossed successfully. But when the two brothers approached the bar together, the victim indicated he was going to head left and cross on a different angle.

Soon afterwards his brother saw him in the water and rode over to try and assist. The man’s lifejacket had ridden up high and was not supporting him. The man said he was “really cold” and needed help. At this stage he sounded concerned but not panicked.

His brother tried to pull the man on to his machine, but each time waves forced them apart. The jetskier then took out a rope, but had to untangle it before throwing one end to the man in the water. He managed to grab it, but the rope then drifted under the jetski and the engine had to be turned off.

When the brother next saw the stranded man, he was face down in the water. The rider jumped off his jetski and managed to pull the victim close to shore. A member of the public in a four-wheel drive helped get the man clear of the surf and then went to raise the alarm. A few minutes later another member of the public arrived and started CPR.

These attempts were unsuccessful and a post-mortem examination concluded the victim died from the combined effects of a moderate head injury, exertion in severe conditions, and an underlying heart condition.

The lack of a crotch strap – to prevent the lifejacket from riding up – severely affected the victim’s ability to survive in the water. A wet suit would also have prevented the man from succumbing so quickly to the effects of cold water immersion.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • Lifejackets with crotch straps are recommended for any adventure sport activity.
  • This man was wearing a 403 lifejacket, also known as a buoyancy vest. These jackets do not have a collar fitted and have a lower buoyancy rating than other lifejackets.
  • Maritime NZ advises that the highest rated lifejacket, a Type 401, be used for adventure sport activities, or any situations other than very calm water. Even when tightly secured, Type 402 and Type 403 life jackets have a tendency to ride up if there is wave action.
  • While crotch straps are currently only mandatory for all child-sized lifejackets and in some yacht racing situations, this incident is an example of how a crotch strap could have improved the man’s chances of survival.
  • A wet suit is also recommended for adventure sport activities such as jetskiing, to help with maintaining buoyancy and body temperature.
  • This man quickly succumbed to the effects of cold water immersion. An underlying heart condition put him at particular risk in cold water.
  • Bar crossings are notoriously dangerous for larger vessels, let alone small personal water craft like jetskis or kayaks. Anybody intending to cross a bar is advised to research local conditions and refer to recommendations for bar crossings.

See tips for bar crossings

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