Horseplay ends in drowning

An evening of fishing and drinking in a small fibreglass dinghy ended with one man drowning.

The man and his fishing companion spent about 4 hours fishing about 100 metres from shore from a 2.1 metre dinghy. By midnight they had drunk all of their alcohol and decided to row back to shore. On the way back, the man, who was by now heavily intoxicated, started using his body weight to rock the boat from side to side, allowing water to slop in over the sides.

His companion tried to get him to stop, but the man carried on until the vessel swamped, and it sank quickly. Without lifejackets, the pair began swimming for shore. The companion called out to the man to come and hold on to the chilly bin for help with flotation, but the man ignored him and carried on towards shore.

The dinghy was unsuitable for fishing.
The dinghy was too small for the two adults.
Maritime New Zealand ©2022

After about 20 minutes, the companion with the chilly bin reached the shore, stripped off most of his wet clothes and started walking along the shoreline, calling out in the dark for the other man.

After searching for some time he ran back to their parked car and drove off in search of a petrol station to borrow a phone. After failing to find a petrol station, he drove back to the beach and came across another fisherman. This man did not have a cell phone either, but they were able to flag down a passing motorist and raise the alarm.

A Police and Coastguard search by sea and air ensued. After several hours, the man’s clothes were found on the shoreline, and an hour later his body was found washed up on the beach. The companion was treated for hypothermia at the scene.

Safety points

  • The vessel was very poorly maintained, and was far too small to be used for fishing by two adults.
  • The pair had no effective means of emergency communication. The vessel carried no distress beacon (EPIRB or PLB), no portable waterproof VHF radio, no flares, and the man’s cell phone was not kept in a watertight plastic bag (and therefore would have been inoperable as soon as it entered the water).
  • Alcohol played a significant part in this tragedy in three ways. In his intoxicated state, the man had made a game of deliberately rocking the vessel. Once in the water, the alcohol would have increased disorientation. Alcohol would also have impaired his ability to make good decisions and to physically swim for shore.
  • The men did not carry any lifejackets on board. Maritime Rule 91 and local bylaws require lifejackets to be carried on all boats and worn unless the risk is low. On this occasion, the following were significant risk factors:
    • an undersized vessel
    • a vessel in poor state of repair
    • fishing at night
    • no effective means of communication in the event of an emergency
    • a high level of intoxication
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