Fatal Kawarau crash report calls for tougher rules for boaties

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A report into a fatal collision on the Kawarau River is calling for tougher rules for recreational and commercial boaties. 

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report into the crash on January 5, 2009 between a recreational jetboat and jetski has found neither vessel was travelling at a safe speed – but it was the jetboat that was on the wrong side of the river. 

Queenstown jetboat driver Brett Singleton, 51, and passenger Anton Woitasek, 34, died in the accident. Neither was wearing life jackets. A third passenger received minor injuries. 

The jetskiers, Invercargill’s Mark Clay and Emma Eckhold – both wearing life jackets – were seriously injured. 

When the accident happened, the boat and jetski were nearing a clump of willow trees that obstructed their view of each other. They were travelling on the Kawarau River in an area where the speed limit of five knots within 200m of the shore had been uplifted through a Queenstown Lakes District Council resolution. 

The report, released yesterday (Thursday), finds the route taken by the jetski is “routinely followed” by commercial operators Kawarau Jet and Thunder Jet and both recreational and commercial users don’t know enough about collision-prevention. 

“[This means] that commercial jetboat operations had operated in contravention of the Maritime Rules’ requirement to travel at a safe speed,” it says. 

“Until through either local bylaws or Maritime Rules recreational water craft users and commercial jetboat drivers are required to acquire and demonstrate knowledge of rules around collision prevention, the risk of accidents caused by knowledge-based errors will remain high – increasingly so with any future increases in maritime activity,” the report warns. 

There was “small quantity” of alcohol on the jetboat, but alcohol consumed wouldn’t have impaired the driver’s ability. 

Nevertheless, the report suggests there should be limits for boaties consuming alcohol and other performance-impairing substances – and a “legal mechanism” to test both commercial and recreational users. 

Among other recommendations to the director of Maritime NZ, the Secretary for Transport and the chief executives of Local Government NZ and QLDC, the report adds there is a “lack of mandatory requirements for head protection” on jetskis and other craft involved in “high-risk” activities. 

The report also finds that lifejackets would “likely have prevented” the deaths of Singleton and Woitasek – and were “almost certainly” what saved the lives of the two jetskiers.

Meanwhile, a top Queenstown Lakes District Council official is questioning aspects of the TAIC report. 

“The TAIC investigation has leveraged off this tragic recreational boating accident to question both the continuation of recreational jet boating on inland waterways nationally, and the safety of commercial jetboating operations,” council regulatory and corporate general manager Roger Taylor says. 

The council welcomes any safety initiatives regarding commercial jet boating however in its view a wider review by Maritime NZ more than adequately covers such matters, Taylor says. 

A new licensing system for commercial operators was already scheduled for introduction in October, this year. 

“Commercial jet boats already operate through multiple layers of regulation including safe operating plans, which are approved by MNZ and are audited annually,” Taylor says. 

Taylor says the council did not accept the TAIC report’s findings about the axing of the 5 knot speed limit on the Kawarau River – or the connection of a recreational accident investigation to findings regarding commercial operators. 

In regards to the 5 knot limit axing, the council considers that the report failed to acknowledge the context but acknowledges there may be merit in looking at the process for national consistency. 

“The uplifting of the 5 knot limit on the Kawarau River was made in the 1980s. The context being that – as stated by MNZ – uplifting of the 5-knot speed limit applied to almost every navigable river in the country. It forms the basis of traditional and practical jetboat use in our country”, Taylor says. 

As shown by photographs in the TAIC report, the Kawarau is a large, single waterway channel shared and enjoyed by commercial and recreational users, relatively incident-free for over forty years.