Kawarau River deaths spark coroner’s call for lifejackets

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The Otago/Southland coroner is recommending to Maritime New Zealand that lifejackets should be made compulsory for anyone in a small boat. 

Coroner David Crerar’s recommendation is included in his provisional findings into the January 2009 deaths of Queenstowners Brett Singleton and Anton Woitasek, released today (Thursday). 

Singleton was driving a private jetboat in which Woitasek was a passenger on a fishing trip on the Kawarau River. They collided with a jetski driven by Mark Clay of Invercargill. 

Singleton and Woitasek were thrown into the river by the force of impact and drowned, Crerar finds. 

Singleton’s boat was manoeuvring upstream round willows on the true right – and in this case, wrong side of the river. 

Another passenger, Singleton’s nephew, Paul Singleton, was thrown into the air but took control of the jetboat and helped rescuer Clay and his passenger Emma Eckhold. 

The coroner notes that neither Brett Singleton nor Woitasek were wearing lifejackets, but Clay and Eckhold were. 

Crerar approvingly notes that since then Queenstown Lakes District Council has passed regulations requiring lifejacket use by all small-boat occupants. 

“I … consider that the compulsory wearing of lifejackets should be a national initiative,” he states. 

The coroner wants Maritime NZ to consider also ensuring that lifejackets are brightly coloured for easier recognition. 

The coroner also recommends that Maritime NZ commissions more research into the use of helmets by drivers and passengers on personal watercraft and jetboats. 

Crerar also recommends the council receive a copy of his report with his request that the Singleton family lawyer’s suggestion about speed limits on river or sections of rivers be further considered. 

However, Crerar states: “Whilst there may be areas where speed restrictions are appropriate, I do not consider that the area of the Kawarau River on which the fatal collision occurred, to be such a place.” 

The report also finds that neither the jetboat nor jetski drivers followed safe boating rules, which require skippers to maintain an effective lookout, maintain a safe speed and take proper and effective action to avoid a collision. 

“The failure by Brett Singleton was however the more serious,” Crerar states.