Record of Investigation Into Death (Without Inquest)
Corners Act 1995
Coroners Rules 2006
I, Olivia McTaggart, Coroner, having investigated the death of Timothy Mark SKINNER and Connor Robert Lincoln HART
Timothy Mark Skinner
- The identity of the deceased is Timothy Mark Skinner;
- Mr Skinner died in the circumstances described in this finding;
- Mr Skinner died as a result of drowning when washed into sea by surf;
- Mr Skinner died on 22 June 2013 in the sea in the vicinity of Suntrap Cove, Bicheno in Tasmania;
- Mr Skinner was born in Perth, Western Australia on 23 March 1980, was aged 33 years, was in a defacto relationship and his usual occupation was a chef/baker; and
- I find that no other person contributed to the death of Mr Skinner.
Connor Robert Lincoln Hart
- The identity of the deceased is Connor Robert Lincoln Hart;
- Connor died in the circumstances described in this finding;
- I find that Connor died as a result of drowning when washed into sea by surf;
- Connor died on 22 June 2013 at Suntrap Cove, Bicheno;
- Connor was born in Launceston on 6 August 2006, was aged 6 years, and was a school student; and
- I find that no other person contributed to the death of Connor.
Mr Skinner was born in Perth, Western Australia on 23 March 1980 to parents Mark Desmond Skinner and Deborah Karen Barnwell (as she is now known). They separated when Mr Skinner was two years of age. Mr Skinner initially lived with his mother for several years, and then lived with his father until he was 13 years of age. He then returned to live with his mother. His parents describe Mr Skinner as being a bright child but exhibiting some wayward behaviour. Of relevance, Mr Skinner’s father was a swimming instructor and Mr Skinner himself was a strong swimmer as a child.
In February 2002 Mr Skinner met Katie Hart when they were both attending a chef’s training course at Drysdale House in Launceston. They commenced a relationship. Their son Connor was born on 6 August 2006. The family lived at 9 Gaunt Street, Invermay in Launceston and they remained together until Mr Skinner’s death. Mr Skinner and Ms Hart became engaged to be married on 26 March 2012.
Mr Skinner suffered with asthma, but had not seen a doctor for a number of years. There is no evidence that he suffered from any serious medical condition.
Mr Skinner’s usual occupation was that of a chef / baker. However at the time of his death he was a stay at home father and carer for Connor. He was in receipt of a social security benefit. Connor was a student in Grade 1 at Invermay Primary School.
Circumstances Surrounding Death:
On 19 June 2013 Lucie Reddy, a friend of both Ms Hart and Mr Skinner, had her 29th birthday. Ms Reddy lives at George Town with her partner, James Nicol. She invited her close friends for a get-away weekend on the following weekend to celebrate. After considering Ben Lomond and Cradle Mountain, it was finally decided that Bicheno would be the destination for the weekend.
On the evening of Friday 21 June 2013 Ms Hart spent the night at George Town with Ms Reddy. Mr Nicol spent the night with Mr Skinner and Connor at 9 Gaunt Street, Invermay.
On Saturday 22 June 2013 Ms Reddy left her George Town residence with Ms Hart and two other female friends. They travelled to Launceston in her car. They arrived in Launceston around midday. They then drove to the Cressy area to pick up another friend and proceeded to Bicheno via Lake Leake arriving at between 3.30pm and 4.00pm.
On the same day Mr Nicol, Mr Skinner and Connor left Launceston and travelled to Bicheno in Mr Nicol’s vehicle arriving at approximately 4.00pm.
All persons involved stayed at “Bicheno by the Bay”. This accommodation is situated on the corner of the Esplanade and Foster Street in Bicheno and provides self-contained unit / cabin style accommodation.
After arriving in Bicheno all the women, with the exception of Ms Hart, who had a tooth ache, went to the supermarket. The males decided to go fishing.
Sometime after 4.00pm that day, Mr Nicol went for a walk and located a track opposite “Bicheno by the Bay” on the Esplanade, which led to the shoreline.
Suntrap Cove is located on the coastline about 500 metres north of the Blow Hole and approximately halfway between the Blow Hole and the Gulch at Bicheno. It is directly opposite “Bicheno by the Bay”. The walking track used by Mr Nicol commences from the Esplanade just south of the Foster Street junction and runs along the northern side of Suntrap Cove.
After walking along the track and presumably assessing the area for fishing, Mr Nicol returned to the accommodation and spoke with Mr Skinner and Connor. They collected their fishing gear and went to the shoreline. They were on the outer headland of Suntrap Cove. All three commenced fishing.
I am satisfied on the evidence that both Mr Nicol and Mr Skinner were experienced fisherman. In particular, both had significant experience in rock fishing. Ms Barnwell, the mother of Mr Skinner, states that from a young age Mr Skinner was taught proper fishing techniques and safety precautions for rock fishing. She states that these included the necessity to have correct footwear, to always face the water, and to be wary of changes in the ocean.
The area of shoreline where the three were fishing comprises large flat and flowing red granite rocks with a drop from the rocks to the water of about two to four metres in places. There is a considerable amount of kelp in the water around the area.
Mr Nicol stated that they fished from this spot for 10-15 minutes. The account of what occurred next whilst the three were fishing comes only from Mr Nicol. There were no other witnesses. I accept his account. It is coherent and accords with all other evidence in the investigation. Mr Nicol swore two affidavits in the coronial investigation. I set out in his own words what occurred:
“Tim and I were on a lower rock near to the water. The sea was rough. The swell was building up and smashing into the rocks. Tim got a bite and was winding his line in. The line/hook got snagged on a rock ledge in front of us.
Connor kept coming up to us and I kept telling him to get back. Tim went out on a further rock to try and retrieve his hook. I noticed a small wave come in and brush over Tim’s feet. I noticed a large swell building behind the smaller one that had just come in.
I yelled at Tim to get back in off his rock. I caught a glimpse of Connor who had come forward with a fishing rod in his hand. Connor was in a position further out than me to my right side. At that time I got smashed by a very large wave. I grabbed onto the rock and was pounded a few times against it. Shortly after the wave subsided and it was dry and I was holding the rock.
I scrambled frantically up the hill to where our fishing bucket was. I looked back and saw Tim in the water. He yelled, “Save Connor, Save Connor”. I looked to saw[sic] Connor in the water also yelling help.
I made a decision based on my limited swimming ability to run for help. I ran through the bush back to where we were staying.”
Mr Nicol stated that he looked at his phone after the wave hit and the time was 4.56pm. He returned to the accommodation and told Ms Reddy to get help. At 5.01pm police were notified.
Mr Nicol immediately returned to the scene and saw both Mr Skinner and Connor face down in the water. Ms Hart, Ms Reddy and their three friends also went straight to the scene. Ms Hart saw Mr Skinner face down in the water before he disappeared from view. She did not see Connor. Ms Brooke Ricketts, one of the group, saw a body floating about 50 metres from shore. Ms Rosemary Major also saw the body, being Mr Skinner, floating face down a similar distance from shore.
The Response and Investigation:
At 5.02pm local police were dispatched. They attended the Blow Hole car park at 5.04pm as the incident location was given as the Blow Hole. There were no vehicles in the Blow Hole car park and police walked to the Blow Hole. They were unable to see any persons in the water. A check of the immediate shoreline failed to locate anyone in the water. There were no people in the immediate area of this part of the coast line.
Police returned to their vehicle and drove north along the Esplanade for some 450 – 500 metres where they came across a group of hysterical people. This was in front of Bicheno by the Bay and just south of Foster Street.
Police were directed to the shoreline where they had brief conversations with Mr Nicol and Ms Hart to ascertain what had taken place.
At this point neither Mr Skinner nor Connor were visible in Suntrap Cove or further out to sea.
The sea conditions at the time were a south easterly swell to approximately 1½ metres with sets 2½ to three metres coming through. Visibility was good enough to see the swell coming from some 400 to 500 metres out to sea. The sea / swell was pounding into the coastline.
At the time the weather was fine and mild, it was twilight and visibility was still fairly good. The day time temperature at Bicheno had been 13.5 degrees Celsius and the overnight temperature 5.5 degrees Celsius. At the time it was fairly calm and the wind speed had been recorded at 3.00pm at 13 kilometres per hour from an east south east direction. The water temperature at the time was 13 degrees Celsius.
Contact was made with Marine and Rescue Services in Hobart where a search controller, Constable Andrew Oakden, was appointed. A request was made for a helicopter to attend.
At 6.33pm the helicopter arrived at the site. Connor was located floating in Suntrap Cove using the helicopter search light. Connor was not visible to the naked eye. Connor was winched onto the helicopter. He was deceased. The helicopter landed at the Bicheno sports ground. Connor was conveyed to the Bicheno police boat shed where he was later photographed and a formal identification conducted by his mother, Ms Hart.
The helicopter returned to the search area to locate Mr Skinner with further planning of the search co-ordinated by Constable Oakden. Constable Oakden liaised with the helicopter crew, local police at Bicheno, the duty Inspector and gathered information from police systems. He contacted local commercial fishermen for information on the conditions of swell, tide and current as well as local drift knowledge. He also requested their assistance with the search. One commercial vessel commenced searching shortly after Constable Oakden’s request. During this time Mr Skinner was not located. The search effort continued by land, air and sea with particular emphasis on water movement and drift patterns.
The search continued throughout the night and intensively on the following two days, 23 and 24 June 2013. Police divers were also used. Mr Skinner was unable to be located. After 24 June 2013 the search was continued by the personnel from the Sorrell Division. Constable Oakden determined, with the assistance of expert advice that Mr Skinner could not have survived in the water after a period of 20 hours from immersion. In fact, the evidence indicates that Mr Skinner’s chance of surviving the first night with no radiant heat from the sun was minimal.
The search nevertheless continued in the hope of locating Mr Skinner’s body. I am informed that regular patrols are still being made of the coastline and that local commercial fishermen are still monitoring the ocean.
In August 2013 checks were conducted by police intelligence services that ascertained that there had been no contact between Mr Skinner and outside agencies. These included all Australian police jurisdictions, Medicare and Centrelink, and 10 of the most commonly used financial institutions.
Based upon all of the evidence in the investigation, I am satisfied that tragically Mr Skinner drowned after he was washed off the rocks at Suntrap Cove in Bicheno. Given his face down and motionless position in the water as viewed by several witnesses, it is likely that death occurred shortly after he was washed off the rocks.
Attending and investigating police formed the view that Mr Nicol, Mr Skinner and Connor should not have been fishing in the area due to the size of the sea / swell. This is further reinforced in witness affidavits reporting on the size of the sea. I accept their opinion in this regard. The significant swell was obvious. Mr Nicol and Mr Skinner were experienced fishermen and should have assessed the risk. In particular, they should have properly considered the danger to Connor who was too young to appreciate the risks. I do accept that they tried to keep Connor back from the waves; however the movements of young children are well known to be unpredictable.
I am satisfied that there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths of Mr Skinner or Connor.
The police officers involved are to be commended for their quick response and effective coordination of the search. One issue raised during the search was the lack of a water response using small vessels to patrol/check the shoreline immediately following the reporting of the incident. The evidence indicates that the sea and swell conditions were too dangerous to allow small craft to search inshore. This was the unanimous view of experienced Marine and Rescue police, and I accept the correctness of their judgment in the circumstances.
I particularly acknowledge the vital part played by Constable Allan Skeggs in the search effort and am grateful to him for his thorough investigation into the tragic deaths of Mr Skinner and his son Connor.
Comments and Recommendations:
The weekend in question was intended as a celebration and ended most tragically. Ms Hart lost her partner and young son in terribly traumatic circumstances.
Coroners across Australia, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria, have previously noted the dangers associated with rock fishing. There have been many deaths over the years in those States involving persons being swept off rocks. It has been noted that even experienced fishermen and good swimmers can still lose their lives when engaging in this activity3.
Various coroners have noted that such deaths can be prevented by taking measures4. These measures are:
- Conduct an assessment of the proposed fishing spot, the weather and sea conditions before deciding to go rock fishing;
- Formulate a rescue plan;
- Always wear an appropriate life jacket or buoyancy vest to help keep afloat in the event of a fall or wash in;
- Carry safety equipment such as ropes and other buoyant items;
- Wear appropriate footwear to reduce the chance of slipping or falling;
- Ensure that you fish in a group. If someone is washed in the one person can stay and help while the other raises the alarm;
- Wear light clothing that does not restrict the ability to swim in the event of being washed in.
I similarly endorse these safety measures and encourage all persons and organisations involved in rock fishing to heed such advice and to disseminate it when appropriate.
I note that New South Wales and Victorian Coroners have also emphasised the importance of warning signage and the placement of “angel rings” (life buoys) in rock fishing areas. It appears that their findings have mostly involved popular fishing areas where there have been other fatalities.
My research indicates that there have been very few deaths in Tasmania as a result of rock fishing. There is already signage at most access points to the foreshore tracks around Bicheno warning of the dangerous conditions. There is no signage specifically at the access point used by Mr Nicol, Mr Skinner and Connor. However, it was plain on the evidence that they should not have been there in the prevailing conditions. I also observe that if they had been wearing flotation vests their chances of survival would have been significantly higher.
Members of the public are to be reminded that there are inherent dangers in being near the coastline in this area, which is exposed to open water in all directions. The conditions may appear safe at first glance but may change instantly with large sets of waves or rogue waves moving through suddenly. Extreme vigilance should be exercised in these areas, particularly when supervising children.
The question of whether signage or other specific measures should be recommended for a certain area is always a difficult one. Tasmania’s coastline is used for a variety of recreational pursuits. The evidence in this investigation does not, without more, allow me to make a recommendation that the access point in question should be signed. Such a recommendation would require me to have full details as to the extent of the use and the danger compared to other nearby areas, and may have wider ramifications for the agencies involved.
I therefore make no recommendations.
Before I conclude this matter, I wish to convey my sincere condolences to Ms Hart and to Mr Skinner’s family in respect of the deaths of Mr Skinner and Connor.
DATED: 17 June 2014 at Hobart in the State of Tasmania