Washed overboard


It was a great day for an offshore sightseeing charter. There was a moderate breeze, but it was warm and sunny and the sea was reasonably calm. After loading about 20 mostly elderly passengers, the GPH cast off and the master set a course for the open sea.

At first, the sea was a bit choppy, but after entering the lee of the headland, there was only a gentle swell to contend with. All in all, there was little to worry the crew who had been doing this sort of thing for most of their lives. Once out of the choppy waters, passengers were invited by the crew to go forward and sit on the foredeck and cabin roof. By allowing the passengers into this area, the master was in breach of one of the survey conditions for the vessel.

After about one hour, the vessel reached a part of the coast with steep-to cliffs and a small rocky islet about 50 metres offshore. The chart for the area showed a danger line between the shore and the islet as well as an underwater obstruction. The waters here were rougher than elsewhere, probably due to a combination of the steep-to cliffs reflecting waves and the underwater rocks, but it was the route that they always took so the master had no qualms about going through the gap.

When the vessel was about halfway thorough the passage a “rogue wave came out of nowhere” and heeled the boat violently to starboard. Four people on the foredeck and cabin roof were thrown overboard and the other passengers were strewn about the cockpit. The master picked himself up from the deck and regained control of the vessel before returning to the people in the water. The passengers were helped inboard and first aid was administered for a range of injuries. In the meantime, the vessel returned to base as fast as possible where it was met by an ambulance.

Lessons learned

  1. This incident shows that it is unacceptable to do things in an unsafe manner just because you have always done that. The master of any vessel is responsible for conducting a risk assessment on every occasion. The safest attitude to adopt is ‘What if something goes wrong?’ not ‘As if anything will go wrong.’
  2. The master of a commercial vessel needs to ensure that they adhere to the survey conditions at all times.
  3. There is usually a good explanation for a rogue wave. In this case, the proximity to the cliffs and the presence of underwater obstructions were the most likely contributory factors.
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