On 8 February 2008, the New Zealand Coroner, Mr Savage, handed down his findings in relation to the circumstances which led to the death of our club member, Andrew McAuley. The purpose of my article is to detail some of these findings and recommendations.
On 11 January 2007 Andrew McAuley set off solo to kayak from Fortesque Bay in Tasmania across the Tasman Sea, expecting to arrive in Milford Sound, New Zealand on 8 February 2007.
Paul Hewitson of Mirage Sea Kayaks constructed Andrew’s kayak, which was 640 cm long x 62 cm wide and weighed 60 kg. Its special feature was an Andrew-designed-and-built fibreglass canopy, or pod, named Casper, attached to pivot arms allowing the canopy to sit behind Andrew on the deck during the day but at night to be swung forward and locked over the cockpit. The pod was, when locked over the cockpit, designed to keep Andrew dry and allow the kayak to self-right.
On 9 February 2007, Andrew was 67 nautical miles off Milford Sound. At 7.13 pm NZ time, he relayed by VHF radio: “This is Kayak1 … I have an emergency situation. My kayak … about 30 hours from Milford Sound … I need a rescue … I need a rescue…my kayak is sinking … “. This radio message was received by the New Zealand Maritime Operations Centre but it was garbled and difficult to understand. It was forwarded to the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand, where time was spent confirming the identity of the caller, although they were aware of Andrew’s presence in the area.
The authorities spent time confirming that ‘Kayak1′ was a distress call from Andrew and they had to estimate Andrew’s location. They took into account the time elapsed from the last confirmed position sent by Andrew 24 hours earlier, the weather forecast and oceanic water movements and currents. An extensive search eventually located Andrew’s upturned kayak 24 hours later.
The Coroner heard evidence from Andrew’s family, Paul Hewitson the builder of Andrew’s kayak (the Coroner regarded Paul as an expert witness), the police, maritime authorities and Paul Caffyn from the Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers (also an expert witness). As well, he looked at Andrew’s photos, recordings and other documents and carefully listened to Andrew’s VHF radio distress call.
In his findings the Coroner determined: “Andrew died from drowning on or about 9th February 2007 when he became accidentally separated from his capsized kayak”. The Coroner pieced together the likely scenario based on Paul Hewitson’s evidence of Andrew’s likely fate.
Paul surmised that it is clear that Andrew capsized while paddling. The weather conditions at that time were described by a police officer as “south-westerly 25 knots, the sea trying, with a short sharp chop.” There was a full 10 litre dromedary bladder of sea water on the kayak’s foredeck which Andrew could desalinate manually within the cockpit. The bladder increased the kayak’s instability and made it more difficult to right. One of the pod’s arms had broken earlier in the trip. When the kayak tipped, the pod went into the water and filled, “making it difficult if not impossible to right the kayak”. Andrew, exhausted from his attempts to right the kayak, undid the rear hatch cover and retrieved the radio. As Andrew was not tethered to his kayak he would have held onto the kayak with one hand and the VHF in the other, until he was swept away from his kayak. “Andrew’s chilling last words were: ‘I’ve fell off … the sea, I’m lost … ‘.”
The Coroner found that Andrew was a very experienced sea kayaker who had completed a number of significant voyages, which included his 530 km crossing of the Gulf of Carpentaria when he had to sleep in the kayak. About the Tasman journey he found, “The journey itself, up to the point of disaster, so close to destination, was a remarkable achievement and was a testament to Andrew McAuley’s planning, fitness, skill, fortitude, and above all, mental strength.”
However, the Coroner adopted a number of criticisms made by the Australian and Tasmanian Marine Authorities and the police prior to the commencement of the trip. An operation plan and risk assessment was required and reviewed by the Tasmanian authorities. Andrew outlined that his primary mode of communication would be one daily contact at 5.30 pm (Sydney time) by SMS on the satellite phone and he would relay his location by GPS beacon. He also carried an EPIRB with GPS capability, a short range VHF radio, and a GPS tracking device.
However, the authorities reviewing his trip plan prior to departure commented: “No provision appears to have been made for on voyage support or rescue. (Escort/recovery craft). Once a day reporting seems inadequate, noting that he has no dedicated support, you can drift a long way in 24 hours; suggest more frequent reporting to his nominated contact list”.
Also, reliance on satellite phones and GPS all required backup battery power, which was insufficient to run such a long trip. The Coroner noted that Andrew did not use the GPS beacon appropriately to automatically send out his position, rather he turned it on manually every day, requiring him to remove the device from its waterproof container. (This was to save battery power.) The beacon broke after three days following a capsize.
Andrew should have had a radio call sign in his plan, which would have identified him easily and would have alleviated the confusion regarding the family’s initial doubt as to the caller’s identity. He did not use the international emergency call of ‘mayday’ to convey his urgent need for assistance. There had been a vessel a couple of hours’ sailing time away which could have provided immediate assistance.
Andrew should have included a complete list of equipment in the operations plan: “This became important, including whether a drysuit was carried, and this affected an assessment of possible survival times in water and was significant to rescue planning.”
The Coroner noted: “The EPIRB was not activated. Had it been activated the kayak would have been able to be pinpointed and identified within minutes. A helicopter would have been asked to undertake a mission within minutes of receipt of the distress beacon, and been at the location in less than an hour. One can only speculate as to why the beacon was not activated … “.
The Coroner canvassed other issues relating to the time delay in initiating the rescue, the disclosure to the family of part of Andrew’s distress call and the rescue process itself, and made a number of recommendations to be used by the rescue authorities in similar situations.
It is clear that having an emergency beacon or EPIRB which would have followed Andrew when out of the kayak, would have likely made all the difference. Paul Caffyn from the Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers gave evidence that when paddling in a remote area, emergency communication equipment (EPIRB, VHF radio, satellite phone) should be carried, either be attached to a life jacket which would be donned in deteriorating weather conditions or contained within a bale-out bag which could be attached to the life jacket or tethered to the paddler in deteriorating conditions.
Paul Caffyn adds his advice gleaned from Freya Hoffmeister:
“Freya … who completed a South Island kayak circumnavigation on 2 January 2008, carried her 406EPIRB, VHF radio, light and flares attached to her PFD. For launching and landing, Freya wore both a helmet and PFD, but in calm conditions the helmet was stored on deck aft of the cockpit, and her PFD forward of the cockpit. I learned a valuable lesson from Freya when I asked her for the reason why a carabiner was permanently attached to the tape loop release of her sprayskirt. When her PFD was stored on the forward deck, it was always clipped into this sprayskirt carabiner. In the event of a sudden out-of-boat event, the PFD remained attached to the paddler via the sprayskirt tape loop, thus contact was never lost with the EPIRB, VHF radio, light or flares.”
Paul adds: “Andrew’s PFD was an inflatable model and unless a PFD is inflated it will offer no support at all. In an inflated PFD, Andrew would have increased his chance of being found, even if he had succumbed to the cold. With a combination of survival suit and inflated PFD, his survival time in the water would have increased. Separated from the capsized kayak, without an inflated PFD, not wearing an immersion suit, with legs almost atrophied after 30 days in the cockpit, cold water wind, chill from the 20-25 knot southerly wind, and breaking chop, I believe 60 to 90 minutes would be pushing the limit for Andrew’s survival.”