A SKIPPER dove under an upturned vessel to open a hatch to help five trapped passengers escape when a boat capsized at Paterson Inlet near Stewart Island in 2019.
A Transport Accident Investigation Commission report into the September 12 incident was released last week.
It says the skipper, who was also the owner of the Rakiura Charters water taxi Henerata, then assisted the passengers through the forward hatch out of the upturned hull.
“It is to the skipper’s credit that he re-entered the upturned hull and guided the passengers out through the forward hatch.
“Had the skipper not done so, the consequences of this accident could have been more severe.”
When the skipper surfaced again, three of the passengers were holding on to the side of the vessel, and one passenger was drifting away but being assisted back by another. The sixth passenger was found clinging to the outboard motor at the stern, the report says.
The skipper had managed to get one mayday message out before the boat overturned, which was heard by a Stewart Island marine radio operator. The operator then tried to call the Henerata both via VHF radio and by calling the skipper’s mobile phone, but received no response from either.
A cell network outage then prevented them from reaching the Rakiura Charters office or the police.
It was 1.28pm, about eight minutes after the mayday call was received, when the operator finally got hold of the Department of Conservation office.
In that time, other skippers had become aware of the situation, the Kaian and Aurora Australis joining the search.
In the meantime, the skipper also got the passengers to move around to the leeward side of the boat where they were less exposed to the wave action and weather. He then swam into the vessel again and grabbed life jackets and flares but was unable to reach the emergency position indicating radio beacon.
About 2.19pm, Kaian reached the boat. The other two boats arrived shortly after. All passengers were then transported back to Golden Bay in Stewart Island.
Four passengers were transported to Southland Hospital by helicopter – two of them were unconscious.
Everyone survived the capsize.
The skipper and passengers were not wearing life jackets at the time; however, there might have been problems exiting the hull if they had, the report says.
The report says the skipper had already cancelled his morning water taxi service due to high winds.
A severe weather watch in place at the time said west to northwesterly winds could approach severe gales in exposed places.
The Transport Accident Investigation Commission found sea conditions were worse than the skipper expected when he entered steep and unpredictable seas, and the sea was also the reason the boat broached.
The self-perceived pressure to provide the service, as there were no communication facilities in the Freshwater River area and passenger pick-ups were rarely cancelled, was also a cause.
The commission’s recommendations included Rakiura Charters address issues of including defined weather criteria in its Maritime Transport Operator Plan to assist a skipper’s decision to sail and assess the risk of capsize.
It also recommended Maritime New Zealand require appropriate stability and buoyancy testing for all domestic commercial vessels, after it was found a lack of stability information probably prevented the skipper being able to assess fully the risk of capsize.
The operator had made several changes to its operations to improve safety should a capsize occur, the report says.