(A)stern lesson

There are many factors that skippers must consider when preparing for time on the water, including the weather and sea conditions (including actual, forecast and potential conditions), vessel suitability, boating skills, and safety equipment. This incident is an example of how one small mistake was compounded by poor preparation and almost became a fatal error.


In mid September, the skipper (and sole occupant) was fishing a few hundred metres offshore in his 3.6 metre tinny and had anchored the vessel using a stern anchor in a 1–1.5 metre swell with a slight north-east wind.

The vessel was “pooped” when a wave came flooding over the stern, but still the skipper was able to start the motor, cut the anchor line and get underway. Unfortunately the amount of water in the vessel had lowered the freeboard and a second wave swamped and then capsized and subsequently sank the vessel.

The skipper was not wearing a lifejacket and was not able to retrieve one when the vessel capsized. In a stroke of luck, he managed to find a piece of timber that he had used to wedge the fuel tank. There were other vessels visible in the area, but as he had lost his flares with the vessel, the skipper was unable to attract their attention.

By hanging onto the timber, he was able to swim to the nearby headland where he made numerous attempts to climb onto the rocks. Each time the skipper attempted to climb out he was battered by the swell and dragged back into the water. The flooding tide pushed him around the headland where he was eventually noticed by a rock fisherman, who alerted a nearby vessel to rescue him.

Despite being in the water for only 45–60 minutes, the skipper suffered hypothermia effects with his core body temperature reduced to 31°C. He also sustained lacerations to 80 per cent of his body, bruising to the chest and around his heart, vomiting and reduced kidney function.

Lessons learned

  1. This incident shows that you should always consider whether your vessel is adequate for the conditions that may be encountered; not just those conditions that are present when you set out. Conditions can change quickly on the water and when offshore, larger waves can occur without warning.
  2. Your boating practices should always prepare for the worst case scenario. In this incident, anchoring by the stern was more convenient for the skipper, but meant that the orientation of the vessel did not present the bows (where the greatest freeboard is) towards the oncoming swell.
  3. Once something has gone wrong, it is usually too late to put your lifejacket on. Wear your lifejacket and have your safety equipment handy in a safety grab bag.
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