Coroner calls for quick release leg-ropes

Lookout! Issue 36, December 2016

A quick-release leash for her stand-up paddleboard might have saved a teenager’s life after she got trapped under a moored yacht in a strong harbour current early last year.

The Coroner’s Court heard that a 15-year-old drowned when she was unable to release her leg-rope and free herself from her board, after falling off and being sucked under the vessel by the tide.

The girl was in a group of seven that set out to cross a North Island harbour on five paddleboards one afternoon over the holiday period.

She was standing up paddling with her friend sitting on the same board. While the paddleboarder was not wearing a life jacket, an inflatable life belt was strapped around her waist.

Paddleboarding within harbour waters.
Paddleboarding within harbour waters.
Maritime New Zealand ©2019

At first the paddleboarder had not attached the leash from her board to her ankle. But she decided to put her ankle cuff on after falling in the wake from a passing boat. She did this while hanging on to her brother’s board, thinking it would be safer to keep her own board close due to the strength of the current. The Coroner observed that attaching her leg-rope – while normally a safe action to take – sadly contributed to the teen’s death.

The girl lost her grip on her brother’s board and got dragged to the side of the yacht, before being pulled under its hull by the current. She ended up on one side of the yacht, with her board initially still on the other and the leash straining between the two. The teen surfaced briefly but then got pulled back under. The girl’s friend managed to hold on to the yacht.

As members of her party attempted a rescue, the girl’s board popped up on the same side of the yacht as her – but the leash was now wrapped around the vessel’s keel. The strong current was pushing both the teenager and the board in the same direction. However, with the keel as an under-water obstruction the youngster was effectively trapped beneath the water.

A friend dived under the boat and tried to pull on the leg rope, but could not free it. He then climbed on to the boat, crossed the deck, and jumped off to be on the same side as the victim. He found the girl under the hull and was able to pull her head out of the water. But she was already unresponsive.

He could not reach the ankle cuff to release her, so continued to hold her head up. Another paddleboarder arrived and was able to reach down and undo the Velcro cuff. Together they got the teenager on top of a board and then transferred her to a power boat, as other harbour users arrived, realising someone was in trouble.

Resuscitation attempts by surf life savers, ambulance officers and a local doctor failed to revive the teenager.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • Harbour currents can be very dangerous, and, when combined with unseen obstacles, conditions can get extremely hazardous.
  • The Coroner recommended a quick release leash for such fast-flowing waters – treating them the same as rivers.
  • The quick release system is attached at the waist with an easy-release pull toggle to undo it effortlessly in an emergency.
  • A quick-release strap at her waist may have been enough for this teenager to save her own life. She may have been able to free herself and swim out from underneath the yacht to safety.
  • New Zealand Stand-up Paddleboarding Incorporated (NZ SUP) recommends a quick release “white-water” leash for rivers, and other waters with strong currents.
  • Kayaking lifejackets often have this quick release system included as standard, and also offer effective buoyancy.
  • The Coroner also recommended that stand-up paddleboarders wear life jackets that are appropriate for their activity.
  • An approved lifejacket that provides immediate flotation is likely to be more effective if a paddleboarder is in trouble, as there may not be sufficient time to remove an inflatable device from its pocket, place it over the head, and inflate it.
  • Stand-up paddleboards are defined as paddlecraft under the Maritime Rules, and users have to wear or carry PFDs at all times, unless surfing.
  • The Coroner says that while the inflatable waist-bag style of PFD may be convenient and allow for less restrictive movement while paddleboarding, the trade-off is that paddleboarders struggling in the water do not have immediate floatation support.
  • However, he agrees with NZ SUP that the type of PFD or inflatable lifejacket used in this case was not material to the cause or circumstances of the fatality.
  • The Coroner did recommend that signage be erected by the regional council warning stand-up paddleboarders of the dangers of the harbour’s fast flowing current and unseen obstacles, especially around moored boats.

For more safety information:

Paddleboarding NZ[www.paddleboarding.co.nz]

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