Record of Investigation into Death (Without Inquest)
Coroners Act 1995
Coroners Rules 2006
I, Stephen Carey Coroner, having investigated a death of
Neville Robert SMITH
WITHOUT HOLDING AN INQUEST
Find That :
Neville Robert SMITH died on 7 March 2010 at Nelson Bay, Arthur River.
Neville Robert SMITH was born in Smithton on the 21 July 1946 and at the time of his death he was aged 63 years.
Neville Robert SMITH was a married person who was a retired truck driver.
I find that Neville Robert Smith died as a result of drowning.
At the time of Mr Smith’s death he was not being treated by a medical practitioner.
Circumstances Surrounding the Death :
On Sunday 7 March 2010, at 8:00am Police attended to a report of a drowning near Couta Rocks, south of Arthur River on the West Coast. A boat driven by Mr Neville Robert Smith and his brother Rodney Smith had been swamped by a freak wave as they were attempting to retrieve two craypots that they had cast the day before.
The weather conditions at the time of the incident were considered calm, however, the area where the craypots were placed is known to be treacherous at times and is called "the slaughter yard" by fisherman.
Rodney Smith recalls:
"At around 3:00pm on Saturday 6 March 2010, myself and my brother, Neville known as "Logs" set up two craypots in Nelson Bay, the day was sunny and the water was flat. We put both pots in a similar area almost opposite the front of the shack in the bay we have fished there a few times and we have been down to the shack for years…"
On Sunday the 7 March 2010, at around 6:30am Mr Neville Smith and his brother Rodney launched their boat in the same spot as the previous day. At this time the water was flat and the weather was sunny with blue skies. Mr Neville Smith drove the boat and they went directly towards the pots which were right beside a rock where Rodney Smith reports that, "you get a bit of a break but it was safe enough to go there".
The first pot was retrieved however, Rodney Smith had to cut the rope to the pot due to it being caught on bull kelp. After placing the pot into the boat they then turned around to retrieve the second pot which was about 30 to 40 metres from the reef.
At this stage Rodney Smith was sitting in the front of the boat facing towards his brother and he states:
"…Logs was about to turn the boat back in the horizon direction, I then saw a wave approaching us, I estimate it was about 4 metres in height. It was suddenly there as we weren’t expecting it. Logs must have known as he tried to power the boat along with the wave, the motor did not have enough power and the wave pushed the boat side on and started breaking over the boat, at this point I got thrown out. I went under water and came up again I was then at the back of the boat which must have been spun completely around by the wave when I was under water.
The boat was half full with water Logs was still in the driver’s seat, I was halfway climbing back in when Logs said , "hang on here comes another one." As soon as he said it, the wave hit us, I estimate it was about half the size of the first one around 2 metres. This wave lifted us and we both got thrown out. I was trying to keep myself a float treading water as we were near a rock, I couldn’t see Logs. Maybe a minute later I spotted him he was floating on his back, he is not a very good swimmer. He was behind me about 30 metres away and the boat was behind him.
I was singing out ‘Logs’ Loggsie, at least half a dozen times. He was motionless, he was on his back holding an oar that must have fallen out of the boat. There was no movement from his arms or legs, he just held the oar. At this point in my mind I thought he may be dead. I was thinking he went under and just floated back up. I thought Logs was gone so I tried paddling to shore but wasn’t getting anywhere…"
At this time Jeffrey Britton, Shawn Britton and Oliver Breeze were also dropping craypots in the area. As they were returning to shore they noticed a vehicle on the shore flashing its lights and a person waving their arms. They looked around and observed a dinghy unoccupied floating around 200 metres from their position. Realising someone was in trouble they threw their craypots overboard and headed towards the boat which was situated over a bull kelp reef.
As they approached the area they saw a body floating face down in the water around 70 to 100 metres away from the over turned boat. They were unable to get their boat near the over turned boat due to the turbulence and kelp, however they retrieved the body (who they recognised as Neville Smith) from the water and returned to shore with him.
Upon returning to the shore they were informed by onlookers that Rodney Smith was still in the water. Jeffrey Britton and Shawn Britton headed back out to search for Rodney Smith and located him a short time later alive. On shore Rodney Smith was assisted by an off duty paramedic.
An examination was conducted on the dinghy by Mr Gwyn Always, Manager Vessel Standards and Survey and he concludes in his final report that,
"…The dinghy is described as a single chine "open" dinghy. (An open dinghy is not protected from entry of water by a weather deck or cabin and any water contained in the boat cannot drain overboard.)
…The boat is registered in accordance with Marine and Safety (Motor Boats and License) By-laws 2008, valid until 31/12/2010. …The hull material is aluminium with welded chines and transom connections. …The boat is powered by a 2 stroke, 15hp Yamaha outboard motor weighing approximately 36kg. The motor is tiller steered with integral throttle and gearing which was intact and functioned.
Structurally the boat is in good condition and has been well maintained especially considering its age of approximately 30 years. A section of plating however, on the starboard side amidships at the chine, has been damaged and the plating penetrated, it is understood that this damage occurred in conjunction with this incident. …Adequate foam buoyancy is fitted to the boat and the foam is well located. The VHF radio did not operate…."
Rodney Smith was wearing an older style floatation jacket which appeared to have saved his life as both brothers were non swimmers.
Neville Smith however, was wearing a "Stormy Seas" life jacket that required manual activation to inflate. The jacket was professionally examined, it was determined that the jacket although it had obviously not been serviced for some considerable time and having a badly corroded carbon dioxide canister, it was in working order and would have inflated if operated as per manufacturer’s instructions. The jacket’s manual operating system had not been operated. The green indicator tab was missing from the body of the activation component.
Comment & Recommendations :
I find that, Mr Neville Robert Smith died as a result of drowning.
I find Neville and Rodney Smith went to retrieve rock lobster pots which they had placed the previous day at an area in Nelson Bay and this area is known by the local fishermen to be treacherous at times.
I find that they had issues retrieving the first pot in which Rodney Smith was forced to cut the rope to the pot. As they started making their way towards the second pot, Rodney Smith observed a wave estimated to be 4 metres approaching them and indicated his concerns to his brother. I note Neville Smith reacted immediately by applying full throttle to the motor in an attempt to out run the wave, however, the motor did not have enough power and the wave struck the rear of the dinghy, completely submerging it in water. As a result of the strike, Rodney Smith was thrown into the water. The dinghy then spun around 90 degrees. Rodney Smith was attempting to climb back into the dinghy when a second wave struck the dinghy and this time Neville Smith was also thrown from the dinghy into the water.
I find both Neville and Rodney Smith were non-swimmers. Apparently Neville Smith had a genuine fear of the water, thus when he was thrown into the water he may well have panicked or gone into a state of shock or for some other reason he failed to manually inflate his life jacket resulting in him drowning before help arrived.
I wish to commend the efforts of Mr Jeffrey Britton, Mr Shawn Britton and Mr Oliver Breeze who unselfishly placed their own lives at risk recovering Neville and Rodney Smith. I also acknowledge the medical assistance provided to Rodney Smith by the wife of Mr Breeze.
This tragic loss of life is a constant reminder to all recreational fishermen of the increased danger they can be exposed to when operating in areas exposed to breaking surf. Although the poor condition of the "Stormy Seas" inflatable life jacket worn by Mr Neville Smith did not contribute to his death it is a reminder to all users of such equipment that it needs to be regularly inspected and serviced to ensure it is capable of inflation when activated.
This tragic event also highlights that this type of personal flotation device may not be suitable for use where there is a possibility by reason of panic, shock or disablement of the wearer that it is not activated. When entering or when operating in an area of increased risk it would be prudent to inflate such a life jacket as a precaution.
Before I conclude this matter, I wish to convey my sincere condolences to the family of Mr Neville Smith for their loss.
This matter is now concluded
DATED : Friday 25 June 2010 at Hobart in the State of Tasmania.