Delay in mounting rescue fatal

Lookout! Issue 37, August 2017

The failure of a kayak hire operator to provide an adequate safety briefing, and to track the location of his clients, contributed to the deaths of two international students on a South Island alpine lake.

Delay in mounting rescue fatal.

A further three students in the party of 11 also suffered from cold and were near death when a rescue helicopter finally hovered overhead.

At District Court sentencing, the Judge told the Court the operator’s “greatest failure” was that, once the weather changed for the worse, he did not make visual contact with the kayakers, and did not mount an effective rescue operation.

The operator pleaded guilty to charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 and the Maritime Transport Act 1994. He was sentenced to 200 hours community service and was ordered to pay $324,500 in reparations, including $115,000 to each of the families of the young men who died.

The weather was initially warm and the lake calm on the late September day, when the visiting party set out in five single and three double kayaks they had hired between them.

The operator who hired out the paddle craft ran a ‘resort-style’ kayaking business. His sign, near the lake edge, indicated the operating area was up to five kilometres from shore. The man had limited experience of kayaking himself, and the hirage was aimed mostly at tourists and back-packers – many also with little experience.

One of the kayaks hired by the group.
One of the kayaks hired by the group, where it ended up on the western shore of the lake, with the island in the distance.
Maritime New Zealand © 2019

About 1.40pm that day, the student group arrived at the lake and was given a limited briefing – which did not include safety warnings about changeable weather and the dangers of prolonged immersion in cold alpine waters. The nine men and two women were aged 20–22. They wore lifejackets but not wetsuits, and did not carry any communications device. Only one was an experienced paddler, with several of the others never having been in a kayak before.

Earlier in the day, at breakfast, some of the group had sighted an island eight kilometres off-shore. Once out kayaking, the whole party decided to strike out for the island – but on the way across they spread out into three groups. After an hour or so the wind whipped up from the east, and five people ended up capsized. In the deteriorating conditions and with limited experience, none of them could re-board.

The first to capsize were one man in the middle group and a woman in the rear group of two. The woman’s companion came to her aid, but he was also flipped out in the half-metre waves. That pair decided to swim for the western shore.

Meanwhile all three men in the middle group tried to assist their friend in the lake. Two ended up in the water themselves, and it was decided the third man should paddle to the island to raise the alarm – believing someone ahead had a cellphone.

The remaining three men clung to a kayak for a prolonged period hoping for rescue. When one of them succumbed to the conditions and his body drifted away, the other two hung on to either side of the kayak and kicked for the western shore.

Up ahead, the first to the island in the advance group was the experienced female kayaker and a male in one of the doubles. The pair were unaware their friends were in danger. The next kayaker to paddle in shouted a warning that they needed to call for help.

However, none of them had brought a cellphone along. With no form of communications the group could not raise the alarm. They started a fire hoping the smoke signal would draw attention. Two of the young men tried to paddle for a house on the eastern shore, but waves flooded the kayak.

Back at the lakefront, the operator had been distracted for 40 minutes by other customers. Once he realised the weather had turned to a strong and cold easterly wind, he could not see any sign of the student group.

A safety plan for the operation outlined that he should keep a watch on kayakers using binoculars, and if anyone was in distress take out a motorised lifeboat to reach their location. His rescue vessel could only hold three adults, so would not have been able to pick up all those in water anyway.

When he eventually launched the boat, he was also turned back by the choppy conditions. He had no cellphone or other communication device to contact rescue services. After taking considerable time to seek the help of locals for sightings and the use of another vessel, his partner arrived at the scene and finally 111 was dialed.

By this stage, the five students had already been in the lake more than an hour. Survival times for cold water immersion are generally about 40 minutes.

A further 45 minutes later, around 5pm, the first to be rescued from the western edge of the lake was the woman swimmer. Nearby was the body of the 20-year-old man who had come to her rescue. He died just before reaching shore. The exhausted woman went back and dragged his body out of the water, but could not revive him.

She was hospitalised, along with the other two survivors who kicked to shore further along the lake edge. All three were suffering from severe hypothermia when the helicopter crew picked them up, and had a narrow escape. The two men who died were among those who went to assist their friends.

LOOKOUT! Points

  • This operator did not comply with his responsibilities and follow his safety plan.
  • He should have kept a watch on the location of the kayakers; and should have implemented an effective emergency plan. This should have included taking a suitable rescue boat out when the group was no longer in sight and the weather turned.
  • All adventure tourism operators must take appropriate steps to ensure the safety of customers. In this case, the clients should have been warned to remain within a safe distance from shore.
  • The judge acknowledged this man was intending only to run a resort-style kayaking hirage, close to shore. However, cold water immersion is a constant danger with alpine lakes and this should have been part of a comprehensive safety briefing.
  • Inexperienced kayakers need to remain near land. Operators must assess thoroughly what level of experience their clients have had on the water – and especially their ability to re-board a kayak and paddle back to safety.
  • Had he checked properly the kayaking background of each individual, this man could have specifically instructed the group not to head away from shore.
  • Both the operator and the group should have had communications devices on hand to call for help.
  • This operator did not react quickly enough and ended up raising the alarm far too late, with tragic consequences. „ As it involved a powered vessel, this operation should have been entered into Maritime NZ’s Safe Ship Management System in 2013 and should have subsequently transitioned into the Maritime Operator Safety System (MOSS). „
  • Business owners setting up to hire out kayaks and other paddle craft should discuss their operating and safety requirements with a Maritime NZ Maritime Officer. You can find contact details for our nearest Maritime NZ office on our website: www.maritimenz.govt.nz
  • People who want to assess whether to use an adventure tourism operator should ask what safety management plans they have in place, and should ask to see evidence.
  • Anyone venturing onto waterways in New Zealand needs to make sure they understand the hazards of the local environment, and take care with their own safety.

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