Fatal right turn


Jetboat tragedy’s likely cause.

A left turn – rather than a right turn – could have prevented Queens­town’s latest jetboat tragedy.

A senior jetboating source this week opens up about the fatal accident involving a Kawarau Jet craft on September 25.

Chinese visitor Yan Wang was killed – she was 42.

The well-placed source – prominent in commercial jetboating here for 20 years – insists on anonymity because official investigations continue.

On that basis, he’s prepared to share what he’s been told – and his conclusions.

The death boat was the second of two fully-laden Kawarau Jet craft carrying a tour party of 44 – each four-tonne boat carried 22 passengers plus driver.

They were powering out of the Shotover River on the homeward leg when tragedy struck.

Standard operating procedure – since changed – was to turn right at the mouth of the Shotover and head upstream on the Kawarau River back to Lake Wakatipu.

The first boat switched rivers without incident and the second craft, driven by the highly experienced Ian Morgan, followed about 100m behind.

“He’s done 6000 hours or so, [Morgan’s] a good driver – but sometimes things go wrong,” says the source.

Morgan had turned right without incident at the Shotover and Kawarau confluence on three earlier trips that day but this time disaster lay ahead.

As big jetboats turn under power, says the source, their bows dip slightly.

Watch Kawarau Jet’s yellow craft do spins in Queenstown Bay and you’ll see what I mean, he says.

Morgan’s bow dipped a little as usual – just enough to hit a submerged sandbank.

“Either he misread the river or got caught out. With the weight of the boat, it suddenly just went over,” says the source.

Kawarau Jet craft have turned right into their namesake river thousands of times without incident, he says.

When the boat flipped, all occupants were thrown into the water – except one.

Yan Wang, seated at the back, was trapped in the submerged rear of the hull – in about two metres of water.

The buoyancy of her lifejacket pinned her against the upturned bottom of the boat.

There may have been contributory factors – the downstream flow of the Kawarau, the river being “discoloured”, wash remaining from the first jetboat – but the source is sure the prime cause of the tragedy was the right-hand turn.

“If he’d gone straight out [into the Kawarau], it wouldn’t have happened” – because the bow wouldn’t have dropped and the craft wouldn’t have caught the sandbank.

Kawarau Jet director Andy Brinsley confirms standard operating procedures were changed within 48 hours of the fatality.

From the Shotover, jetboats now turn left downstream into the Kawarau and then U-turn to head back upriver to Queenstown.

The change is “one of three specific things Maritime New Zealand asked us to do and that was one of them”, Brinsley says.

The other two changes relate to safety cards and lifejacket checks.

Safety cards are now completely “symbol-based” so passengers of all languages can understand vital messages.

Drivers now do lifejacket checks on passengers, backing up earlier checks by ground staff – although Brinsley stresses lifejackets were all “zipped up and clipped up” on September’s fatal trip.

Mountain Scene was left with one burning question: why wasn’t Yan Wang’s by-then lifeless body recovered until 90 minutes after the accident?

Kawarau Jet’s Brinsley is constrained by official investigations, as is harbourmaster Marty Black – he refuses comment.

So what has the jetboating source heard? Confusion over survivor head counts, he reveals.

“The problem with the whole bloody thing was just confusion, people were shocked, didn’t speak the language.”

Looking back and seeing passengers from the second boat in the water, the driver of the first boat turned back.

Some survivors were on top of the upturned craft, others in shallower water were making their way to the riverbank. Those picked up by the first jetboat were put ashore, along with that boat’s passengers.

Fifteen minutes after the accident, 43 passengers were milling around on the riverbank.

A passing helicopter, spotting the rescue, put down on the bank to help and whisked about six shocked passengers off to hospital.

The two jetboat drivers counted heads and believed everyone was accounted for, repeatedly telling police and other scene officials exactly that – police left the scene on that assurance.

“But five or 10 minutes later,” says the source, “one of the [jetboat] drivers said ‘I think we’ve got a problem, one’s missing’.”

He’d rechecked trip numbers by radio with Kawarau Jet’s base.



Moments before tragedy: how it unfolded

1. River exit: Jetboat nears Shotover River mouth

2 . Critical turn: Craft turns right, upstream into Kawarau River

3. Unseen hazard: Boat’s bow drops slightly during turn, striking submerged sandbank

4. The flip: Sudden stop causes craft to flip from right to left, throwing all 22 passengers out – except one

5. The drowning: Victim caught in submerged stern of overturned boat, trapped by lifejacket’s buoyancy



Water users reined in.

Queenstown’s unregulated water-borne activities will be reined in by new laws – hopefully by Christmas, says harbourmaster Marty Black.

Kayaking, river surfing, parasailing and canyoning are caught in a revised local council bylaw – presently, only jetboating, rafting and large vessels are regulated.

Operators set their own safety plans and QLDC does annual audits. “You’ve got to say what you’ll do and then prove you’re doing what you say,” says Black.