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A 5m speedboat was launched at a public slipway with the intention of taking a short trip in the bay. The experienced speedboat driver had three children with him.

The weather was overcast and the wind was forecast to be force 4-5 with 1m high significant waves, but at the time of launching there were no white horses visible outside the harbour. The four occupants were wearing wetsuits and buoyancy aids.

The speedboat was motored slowly out of the harbour and was travelling in convoy with two jet skis. Once clear of the harbour, all three craft increased speed, the driver of the speedboat applying almost full throttle to get the boat up onto the plane.

Shortly afterwards, the speedboat hit a large unexpected wave and the boat capsized, initially settling upside down. Three of the occupants managed to get clear, but the boat’s stern then sank under the weight of the outboard engine, leaving the bow protruding out of the water. It was apparent that one of the children was somehow caught on the boat under water.

The jet ski riders, who had quickly arrived on scene, and the others in the water tried repeatedly to swim down and release the trapped child, but they were unsuccessful.

The emergency services were alerted by a member of the public and the local lifeboat was paged. Just as one of the jet ski riders arrived back ashore to raise the alarm, the lifeboat was launched. Once on scene, it lifted the speedboat by the bow, enabling the trapped child to be released. First-aid was commenced immediately, and the child was transferred quickly to a waiting ambulance ashore, but sadly never recovered consciousness.

The Lessons

One of the straps of the buoyancy aid worn by the casualty was found to have become caught on an aft mooring cleat of the speedboat (see figure). The buoyancy aid was too big for the child and this increased the risk of it becoming snagged. Buoyancy aids and lifejackets are important items of safety equipment, but they must be a close fit to ensure that they are able to function correctly and minimise an opportunity to become caught.

The speedboat was constructed prior to the introduction of the Recreational Craft Directive in 1996. Leisure craft since then have had to meet more stringent safety standards, one of which is that an open boat under 6m in length will remain afloat when swamped. This requirement would necessitate sealed buoyancy in the hull to support the weight of the outboard engine, preventing the boat sinking in the manner that occurred in this accident. When buying older or second-hand leisure craft, make sure you are aware of any shortcomings or seek professional advice if not.

It was fortunate that the accident occurred close to a harbour and was seen by somebody ashore so that the lifeboat could be alerted quickly. If a waterproof VHF radio had been carried by one of the party, it would have enabled the coastguard to be contacted immediately. It would also have made clarification of what had happened and how many persons were involved, easier.

Before going to sea, make sure you have properly assessed the weather, tides and likely sea conditions so that you can take the necessary precautions. Maritime forecasts are readily available on the internet and often, as was the case here, posted by slipways or on harbourmasters’ noticeboards. Beware of placing too much reliance on what the sea conditions look like from ashore as this can be deceptive.