Reliance on a chart plotter leads to night crash

Lookout! Issue 36, December 2016

Spotlights and better local detail on the chart plotter of his new boat may have prevented a recreational boatie from crashing into a cliff face at the edge of a central North Island lake, while returning from night fishing with his girlfriend.

The couple were trying to navigate in the dark by chart plotter, which was loaded only with “Base Maps”, when the skipper had some difficulty working out how to operate the unit.

He had bought the 6.5m fishing boat a week earlier and had been running it in during day trips on the lake. The chart plotter came with the vessel.

When the man, 31, noticed it was taking a long time to get to the bay of the camp site they were staying in, the pair used head lamps to illuminate the shore, and realised they were in the wrong bay.

Frustrated by the delay after a long day on the lake, the skipper turned the boat around and noted the map of the lake on screen didn’t turn with the vessel. The chart plotter was in “heads-up display”, but because the base map didn’t turn he thought there was an issue with the unit.

...the skipper was concentrating on his chart plotter when he heard his girlfriend suddenly scream a warning...

The man switched the chart plotter off and on again, and it appeared to work fine. He then decided to line the boat up on a previous plotted track, thinking it would be sensible to follow that back to a fishing spot they had come from near their camp.

They headed off at around 35 km/h on a previous track. At this stage the skipper was still trying to show his partner how the plotter worked. His preference was to have the plotter zoomed out, but she said it should be zoomed in.

The skipper was concentrating on his chart plotter when he heard his girlfriend suddenly scream a warning. Leaning forward to get a better sight of the danger, his body hit thesteering wheel when the vessel smashed into the cliff face just off the starboard bow.

Prow of boat stoved in.
Maritime New Zealand ©2016
The rescue boat with replacement steel and chain strops – installed after the webbing bridle broke.

The force propelled his partner forward into the forward bulkhead, fracturing her kneecap. Her boyfriend’s head and right side of his face struck the window and pillar on the starboard side of the hard top, causing extensive lacerations and knocking him unconscious.

He lost the sight in his right eye as a result of the accident.

There was no distress beacon aboard on which to raise the alarm and cell phone coverage is patchy at best on the lake.

The couple were eventually able to call for help using the vessel’s VHF radio. Police were alerted, who arranged Coastguard and Ambulance crews to attend the scene. While alcohol was on board, there was no evidence of the skipper being inebriated.

The skipper was a relatively experienced boatie who had operated his father’s vessel of a similar size, and had fished that lake many times before. However he had not completed any Coastguard or other formal skipper’s courses.


  • This skipper needed to have his full attention on the course he was taking and the surroundings. Other people on board should be positioned to keep lookout and raise the alarm earlier if need be.
  • It is important also to have tested and understood the capability and limitations of equipment, such as chart plotters, before using them at night.
  • Reliance on a chart plotter alone when motoring at night is not recommended. The standard, basic level maps on GPS chart plotters may not be sufficiently refined to navigate by at night.
  • Boaties need to have accurate, up-to-date charts for the environment they are in.
  • This skipper says he realises now that his chart plotter with the basic navigation package may have been sufficiently adequate for coastal/inshore navigation, but it did not hold the same accurate and detailed information for inland lakes – which he didn’t realise at the time.
  • He says the main lesson he learned is to be extremely cautious when boating at night: Do not rely on electronics, slow down, reduce the any cabin lighting to improve night vision, and use spotlights.
  • While spotlights assist with night travel, they are best used when stopping to check location. Spotlights can limit your vision to the width of the beam if relying on them when motoring.
  • A skipper should not travel at speed while relying on spotlights for lookout. Spotlights can also blind other boaties who may be in the area.
  • Boaties are advised to have multiple forms of communication close at hand, to enable emergency services to be alerted as quickly as possible – including a PLB or EPIRB distress beacon, flares, and charged cellphones in waterproof bags – in addition to the maritime radio that was on board this vessel.

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