Fatal capsize on fishing trip

One man died and his companion swam to safety after a kayak took on water and capsized.

Two men sat facing the bow of their large plastic sit-on kayak as sea-water slopped into its hull through the open aft hatch.

Eventually the kayak capsized, spilling the men into the water. One was able to swim to safety, but the other drowned.

The men had set off for an evening of fishing in a fairly remote area. As they headed to the fishing spot, they shared the paddling and drank alcohol. Neither was wearing a lifejacket.

a sea kayak with some equipment onboard stored in a kayaking club house
Maritime NZ
The plastic sit-on-top sea kayak showing the open aft hatch.

At the fishing spot, they removed the anchor from the aft hatch and anchored stern-to into moderate seas. Because they were both seated facing forward, they did not see the waves breaking over the stern and slopping into the aft hatch, which had been left open.

After about 20 minutes, the men realised the kayak was getting low in the water and closed the hatch. As they were trying to pull up the anchor, the free surface effect of the water inside caused the kayak to capsize. Both men were tossed into the water and started swimming together towards a nearby island.

One man was swimming strongly but, stopping to check on his companion, he realised the other man was out of his sight. He swam back to where he had last seen his friend but, unable to find him, carried on to the island. He was seen by members of the public and rescued.

An aerial and sea search was unable to find the other man. His body was later recovered by Police divers.


Safety points

  • Neither man was wearing a lifejacket.
  • The men had been drinking. Alcohol impairs perception and judgement, can cause disorientation and increases the body’s susceptibility to cold.
  • The kayak was a popular plastic model that has no watertight compartments or other forms of enclosed buoyancy in the hull.
    • When a large volume of water enters the hull, it is subject to free surface effect, which causes instability. Those on board can remain unaware that a vessel is taking on water until it is too late and the vessel capsizes.
  • Additional buoyancy can be added to this type of kayak through the aft or forward hatches. Buoyancy bladders, polystyrene or even sealed plastic containers such as milk bottles can help prevent a kayak from sinking.
    • If the vessel does capsize, these materials will make it protrude higher out of the water, allowing rescuers to see it more easily and people in the water to use it for flotation.
  • Opening a hatch in seas capable of putting water on the deck is hazardous and should be avoided in all situations apart from an emergency.
  • Kayak pumps are widely available and the water could have successfully been removed if one had been available.
  • If the men had been equipped with a distress beacon or a waterproof hand-held VHF radio, or if either man had been carrying a cell phone in a sealed plastic bag, they would have been able to call for rescue rather than risk swimming to shore.
  • The men were not aware of the sea’s state and its effects on their vessel. Skippers of small craft should position themselves so they can continuously observe the direction waves are coming from.