Right gear could have saved more

Last updated 11:33 24/12/2012

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Lifejackets saved the lives of three people after a boat capsized off Ruapuke Island in January, but two others on board could have been saved if they were dressed for the conditions and carried backup communications equipment, a coroner has found.

Southland men Shaun David Bethune, 23, and Lindsay James Cullen, 59, died on January 3 this year after the catamaran Extreme 1 capsized off Ruapuke Island after being hit by a large wave.

They succumbed to hypothermia after more than three hours in the water.

Three other people on board, skipper Barry Bethune, Shaun's father, and passengers Carol Saxton and Denise Zonneveld, were rescued in Caroline Bay, off Ruapuke Island.

An inquest was held on November 27. The findings of Otago-Southland coroner David Crerar can be made public today.

The three survivors owed their lives to lifejackets, the finding says. However, a mobile phone in a waterproof bag could have saved all five people, he says.

Barry Bethune had an emergency beacon on the boat, but it was uncomfortable to carry and was mounted in the cabin rather than on his person. It could not be reached after the capsize.

The passengers had mobile phones but they were damaged by water.

Mr Bethune had not checked in with the Bluff Marine Radio but this would not have made a difference, Mr Crerar says.

It would only have alerted rescue services after Extreme 1's planned return time and the boat had capsized a short time into its journey.

However, if an emergency beacon had been zipped to a lifejacket, or if mobile phones had been kept in waterproof bags, those on board could have raised the alarm.

Clothing worn by the five on board also made a difference to their survival chances, he says.

"Of those who survived the three plus hours in the cold waters of the Foveaux Strait, those who survived best were Denise Zonneveld and Carol Saxton. It was they who wore the most appropriate clothing."

The inquest was told Barry and Shaun Bethune and Mr Cullen were wearing jeans and cotton tops. Barry Bethune was near death when he was rescued and had to be flown to hospital from Ruapuke Island.

Both Mr Cullen and Shaun Bethune had traces of cannabis in their systems.

Mr Crerar said Mr Cullen was likely affected by it during the capsize, while Shaun Bethune had probably smoked a cannabis cigarette roughly eight hours before his death.

It was impossible to say whether the drug had contributed to their deaths, Mr Crerar said.

"But it is unlikely that the consumption of cannabis enhanced [their] survival chances."

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He recommended Maritime New Zealand continue to press for lifejackets to be made compulsory on small boats. It should also incorporate education about the dangers of cannabis use into its "water and alcohol don't mix" programmes, he said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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