Man drowned after falling overboard on fishing trip, coroner urges safe boating practices

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SINGAPORE: A coroner has stressed the need for safe boating practices after a man fell overboard and drowned in the sea near Pulau Bukom while on a fishing trip.

IT company operator Mr. Lau Kuan Tek died in hospital at the age of 45 on January 30 last year.

State Coroner Adam Nakhoda called her death a misadventure, stressing the importance of boaters wearing life jackets, especially if they can’t swim or aren’t strong swimmers.

Boaters should also ensure that safety equipment such as life jackets and life rings are easily accessible and ready for immediate use, and ensure that they are familiar with emergency procedures, a- he declared.

The boatman was fined by the Maritime and Ports Authority of Singapore (MPA) for offenses including using his pleasure craft for commercial purposes and failing to ensure that buoys rescue are easily accessible.

The court heard that Mr Lau had gone fishing with his sister’s friend, named in court documents only as Madame Lily, her two sons and the boatman, named only as Mr Tan.

The group of boaters boarded the vessel, a sampan-type open speedboat, at the Pandan River small craft pier on the afternoon of Jan. 30, 2021.

The boatman anchored at a fishing spot near Terumbu Pempang Tengah, which is near Jurong Island and next to Pulau Bukom, around 5:30 p.m.

Mr. Lau stood at the back of the boat preparing bait or lures for fishing with his back to the sea. He bent down and straightened up, but lost his balance and fell into the sea. told Mr. Lau to swim to the boat, but Mr. Lau shook his head, indicating that he could not swim.

Mdm Lily saw Mr. Lau swallowing water and shouted at the boatman to use a hook pole or fishing net pole to reach Mr. Lau, but the boatman said they were too short. He held out a fishing rod and Mr. Lau grabbed it, but it split in two.

Meanwhile, Mdm Lily and her two sons were trying to cast off the lifeline attached to the metal poles of the canopy, but they were struggling to do so.

By the time the lifeline was released, Mr. Lau had moved about five to six meters away from the boat. Mdm Lily’s two sons, aged 13 and 11, jumped into the water to retrieve Mr Lau. Together with the boatman and Mdm Lily, they managed to get Mr. Lau back on the boat.

However, Mr. Lau had water dripping from his mouth. Mdm Lily performed chest compressions on him, assisted by the boatman, but he could not be revived.

Mr. Tan moved the boat in search of help. Mdm Lily’s son called 995 and the group was told to head to the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club.

An ambulance arrived at 6:20 p.m. and Mr. Lau was taken to hospital. He could not be revived and died about an hour later. An autopsy confirmed that he died by drowning.

The MPA investigator said the main cause of Mr Lau’s drowning was his falling overboard and his “inability to swim”.

The officer said Mr. Lau lacked situational awareness of the dangers of the sea, which caused him to stand in his seat near the gunwale, and his sudden righting motion from a hunched position that caused him to lose his balance.

The officer said the drowning could have been avoided if Mr Lau had been wearing a life jacket.

However, Mr Lau’s wife testified that her husband was “an average swimmer”. She said her husband was an avid fisherman and usually carried an inflatable life jacket in a pouch with him when he fished, but he didn’t take it with him that day.

CONCERNS OF THE WIFE OF THE DECEASED

Mr. Lau’s wife raised several concerns at the coroner’s inquest.

These include: that none of the passengers were offered lifejackets even after Mdm Lily asked for them, that the lifebuoys were not easily deployable and were not attached to a rope, that the boatman did not jump into the sea to help save her husband even though he could swim, that there was no radio on the boat to call for help and that the boatman had no not deployed a flare and that the boat was not licensed to carry paying passengers.

In response to concerns from Mr Lau’s wife, the MPA investigator said there was no requirement for passengers on a pleasure boat to wear life jackets. There is also no obligation for the boatman to give passengers a safety briefing before departure, nor a requirement for skippers to be proficient in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

As to whether the boatman should have jumped overboard to save Mr Lau, the officer stressed that “no one is supposed to jump (overboard) and pick them up, it’s not the right way”.

The instruction given to the skipper not to go overboard to rescue a man who has fallen overboard is in line with American Red Cross practice. The mandate is “reach or throw, don’t go” – so the rescuer stays safe.

After the incident, MPA gave recommendations to prevent future similar incidents. The authority recommended that boaters be encouraged to wear life jackets, particularly where there was an increased risk of falling overboard.

As part of this recommendation, harbor inspectors on patrol were made aware of the importance of wearing a lifejacket and sharing this safety measure with boaters.

MPA also conducted safety briefings and used case studies to educate boaters to strongly encourage passengers to wear a lifejacket.

ERRORS ON THE BOAT

The boat was equipped with the required number of lifejackets and lifebuoys, but the lifejackets did not have self-igniting lights and the location of the lifejackets was not clearly marked. They were also not evenly distributed throughout the boat.

The lifebuoys did not bear the boat’s license number and were not found ready for immediate use in an easily accessible location. The boat was also not equipped with a VHF radio.

The coroner said the ideal course of events once the boatman thought Mr Lau could not swim was to throw him a lifeline first.

He should then have cut the anchor rope and driven the boat as close to Mr. Lau as possible to rescue him.

The coroner said what Mdm Lim’s sons, aged 13 and 11, had done was ‘extremely brave and commendable’, but stressed it was also ‘a potentially very dangerous risk’.

“In these situations, the primary method of rescuing a person in difficulty in the water would be to throw a flotation device, bring the boat alongside the person, then pull them into the boat, not jump in. and try to save them,” he said.

The boatman testified that he used the boat at least six times a week for recreational fishing, and had taken his friends with him since 2019.

He usually charged S$70 per person as he provided bait, ice, snacks, drinks and to cover the cost of petrol. He claimed that he did not realize that he was not authorized to collect money from the passengers he took.

MPA sued the boatman for various fines. He was fined S$500 for breaching regulations, including failing to ensure that life jackets were properly stowed and life rings were ready for immediate use.

He was fined an additional S$150 for commercially using his pleasure craft, which was only licensed for private use.

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