Drowning death prompts call for lifejacket review

A coroner's inquest into the drowning death of a Wellington man boating on calm waters has prompted a recommendation to review lifejacket rules for recreational boaties.

Leon Grant Scurrah, 45, of Taita, drowned after a boat carrying him and a friend capsized in Wellington Harbour on August 18, 2012.

The inquest heard how the boat sank quickly in conditions described by rescuers as glassy smooth, with the lifejackets trapped inside. It also heard how Scurrah's boating partner, Paul Keating, made a valiant attempt to save his friend's life.

Details of the inquest in coroner Garry Evans' findings released today, showed the boat, less than 6 metres in length, was Scurrah's first and he was inexperienced. That afternoon the pair launched from the Petone foreshore with Keating at the tiller. There were lifejackets aboard, but neither man donned one.\

They set a fishing net and headed back, but spotted a dinghy nearby and diverted course. About 200m to 300m from the dinghy, Scurrah stood and shifted his weight toward the bow suddenly.

The boat capsized, throwing both men overboard.

Keating later told the inquest it all happened so fast he did not even have time to yell to his friend.

They managed to hold onto the upturned vessel and Scurrah removed his gumboots but within 10 seconds it was nearly under, so the men began swimming the 100m to shore.

Scurrah managed at first, but began to slow about 20m offshore and told Keating he didn't think he would make it.

Keating told the inquest he could not tell whether the dinghy's occupants had seen them and swam ashore, retrieving a log to help his friend.

But when Keating was about halfway back to Scurrah he saw his friend sink out of sight. He couldn't find him so swam ashore again and found a bystander to call 111.

Maritime police and dive squads later that day found the boat on the seabed with the lifejackets tucked inside.

Scurrah's body was about 50m from shore.

Scurrah's mother told the inquest her son was not a strong swimmer.

The inquest heard the tiny amount of alcohol in Scurrah's system was not a factor, and the boat was not faulty.

Sea conditions were determined not to be a factor, but investigators found small boats were easily capsized.

The report noted there were no distress signalling devices although maritime investigator Ray McMillan gave evidence it was unclear they would have helped given that the boat and its contents had vanished swiftly.

"However, it is clear that had the occupants been wearing the lifejackets at the time of the capsize it is most likely the death would have been prevented," McMillan said.

The report noted the efficacy of lifejackets in reducing the risk of drowning had been well advertised. Maritime Safety Authority rules advise that people always wear lifejackets in boats less than 6m in length - but that they can remove them if the skipper determines the risk very low.

Maritime New Zealand's proposal to make wearing lifejackets in boats of 6m or less compulsory was rejected in 2010 by the Government but adopted as a bylaw by authorities, including the Wellington Regional Council. However, the bylaws still allowed a skipper to determine sea conditions safe enough to remove lifejackets.

McMillan cast doubt on the efficacy of the current rules.

The coroner agreed, finding that the calm sea conditions and the speed at which the boat sank made the absence of a lifejacket the most important factor in the accidental drowning.

The coroner made a recommendation to Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee to review recreational boating rules, including whether the occupants of vessels of 6m metres or less should be compelled to wear lifejackets at all times while at sea.

The Dominion Post