Inflatable dinghies and no lifejackets common factors in drownings

Lookout! Issue 36, December 2016

Two men without lifejackets have drowned in separate incidents involving inflatable dinghies.
Light inflatable.
Maritime New Zealand ©2019
Light inflatables like these are easily blown out to sea.

One man’s inflatable flipped in strong winds while he was setting crab pots off a Northland beach, while the other could not swim back against the tide to his dinghy, which was anchored in a harbour mouth north of Auckland.

Aged in his 20s, the swimmer was wearing track pants and a leather jacket when he lowered himself into the sea around 11am, to retrieve an oar that had gone overboard. Having experience in rivers in central Russia, where he grew up, the man considered himself a reasonable swimmer. But he was not familiar with the sea and the flood tide had carried the oar some way from the vessel.

Abandoning his attempts to fetch the oar, the man tried to return to the dinghy he had bought just a few days before. A friend who had remained aboard could see that he was struggling against the tide and held out the other oar to pull him in. But the swimmer was unable to reach the oar and an attempt to throw him the anchor line also failed. A diver on the shore witnessed the incident and tried to swim out to assist, but could not get to the flailing man.

His friend aboard the inflatable was also panicking. He phoned a family member of the swimmer and Police were alerted. Helicopter crews and lifeguards joined the search but the swimmer was last seen drifting further away from the dinghy. He was heard to say “now I will drown” before disappearing below the surface.

In the crab-fishing incident, a man’s wife and children watched in shock from the beach as he struggled to swim to safety, against wind and current, after his inflatable dinghy capsized a kilometre off shore.

In his 30s, the man was visiting Northland from Auckland. The light inflatable was borrowed from a friend and he was wearing a short- legged wetsuit bought the day before. The lifejacket he purchased at the same time was left on the shore.

The man had paddled out to set crab pots but a strong wind blowing off-shore pushed his light boat out to sea. A passer-by stopped to help the distressed family and called emergency services.

Crews from the local Surf Lifesaving Club joined the search and retrieved the two-metre dinghy. The green “Commando” inflatable appeared to be designed as a toy for a pool or lake, not the open sea.

The man’s drowning was the third tragedy involving crab fishers in the area in a short period. An extensive search failed to locate him and his body was found on the beach some days later by a member of the public.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • Both these men are much more likely to have survived if they had been wearing lifejackets.
  • New Zealand coastal waters can be dangerous. Visitors and New Zealand residents from other countries need to understand local conditions before they take to the water. This includes harbour and coastal currents, wind patterns and strengths.
  • All recreational boaties and fishermen must plan ahead. They need to understand the environment they are heading into, know the limits of their abilities, and not take unnecessary risks.
  • Off-shore winds, tides, and sea currents can be very dangerous in any part of the country.
  • It’s important to have a vessel that is fit-for- purpose. Light inflatable dinghies are easilyflipped in medium to strong winds, and are designed only for calm, in-shore boating.
  • Boaties must ensure their vessels are seaworthy, and check the weather before they go out.
  • Always carry two means of emergency communication that are kept dry, and make sure everybody on board wears their lifejackets when heading away from the shore.

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