Man talked of wearing life jacket before drowning

Five minutes before he fell into Papanui Inlet and drowned, a Portobello man talked about wearing a life jacket the next time he went fishing.

Robert ''Bob'' Wilfred Clearwater (75) died while net fishing with his 80-year-old brother Brian at Papanui Inlet about 2pm on January 29 last year.

Neither man was wearing a life jacket and none were in their small aluminium dinghy.

The brothers tied one end of a fishing net to secure seaweed and attached the other end to the dinghy, as they had done many times previously.

As Bob Clearwater started pulling in the net, he stood up on one side of the dinghy, causing it to capsize and tip both men into the water.

Just five minutes earlier, Bob had said ''next time I come out here I'm bringing a life jacket'', Brian Clearwater said.

He gave evidence yesterday at an inquest in Dunedin before coroner Richard McElrea, of Christchurch.

''Whether he [Bob] had a premonition or not, I don't know,'' Mr Clearwater said.

He managed to hold on to a fishing buoy and told his brother to do the same, but it appeared Bob had swallowed a lot of seawater.

Bob was wearing gumboots and was not a strong swimmer.

A man working nearby saw the incident and rushed to help, paddling out on a surf board within about five minutes of the boat capsizing. He got Bob on to the board and brought him ashore.

The rescuer and another man tried to resuscitate Bob, but when paramedics arrived he was pronounced dead.

Brian Clearwater was also helped ashore and taken to Dunedin Hospital.

He and Bob had fished Papanui Inlet since they were aged about 5 and had lived on Otago Peninsula all their lives.

They had life jackets at home, but rarely used them.

''I've probably used a life jacket twice,'' Mr Clearwater said when asked by Mr McElrea.

He had not fished from the dinghy since the incident, and said it was ''absolutely'' a good idea for boat users to wear life jackets.

Senior Constable Lox Kellas, of Portobello, said it was still common for people not to wear life jackets, but more were heeding the safety message.

Snr Const Kellas, who is also president of Coastguard Dunedin, said the Clearwater brothers were fishing in a narrow channel, about 20m from shore, in calm conditions.

Dr Alex Dempster found the cause of death was drowning.

There were no criminal or medical issues involved, and the dinghy was found to be in good condition.

Maritime New Zealand officer and National Pleasure Boat Safety Forum national secretary Alistair Thomson, of Auckland, outlined to the hearing the importance of life jackets.

He said about 98% of boat users carried life jackets, but only 55%-60% of those wore them.

Each year, about 1 million people used the more than 900,000 pleasure boats in New Zealand, and about 650 incidents were reported to Maritime NZ.

He outlined various efforts to make the wearing of life jackets on small boats compulsory.

Mr McElrea reserved his decision.

- rosie.manins@odt.co.nz

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