SINGAPORE: A coroner has highlighted the need for safe boating practices after a man fell overboard and drowned in the sea near Pulau Bukom during a fishing trip.
Mr Lau Kuan Tek, an IT firm operator, died in hospital aged 45 on Jan 30 last year.
State Coroner Adam Nakhoda ruled his death a misadventure, stressing the importance for boaters on pleasure craft to wear life jackets especially if they cannot swim or are not strong swimmers.
Boaters should also ensure that safety equipment like life jackets and life buoys are easily accessible and ready for immediate use, and ensure that they are very familiar with emergency procedures, he said.
The boatman has been fined by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) for contraventions including using his pleasure craft for commercial use and failing to ensure that life buoys were easily accessible.
The court heard that Mr Lau had gone on a fishing trip with his sister’s friend, named in court documents only as Madam Lily, her two sons and the boatman, named only as Mr Tan.
The boating party boarded the vessel, an open sampan-type speedboat, at the Small Boat Jetty at Pandan River on the afternoon of Jan 30, 2021.
The boatman dropped anchor at a fishing spot near Terumbu Pempang Tengah, which is near Jurong Island and next to Pulau Bukom, at about 5.30pm.
Mr Lau stood at the stern 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 toppled into the sea. The boatman told Mr Lau to swim back 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 separated into two.
Meanwhile, Mdm Lily and her two sons were trying to release the life buoy secured to the canopy’s metal poles, but they had difficulty doing so.
By the time the life buoy was released, Mr Lau had drifted about five to six metres 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 hoist Mr Lau back onto the boat.
However, Mr Lau had water flowing 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 party was instructed to head to the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club.
An ambulance arrived at 6.20pm and Mr Lau was taken to hospital. He could not be revived and died about an hour later. An autopsy confirmed that he had died from drowning.
The investigating officer from MPA said the primary cause of Mr Lau’s drowning was his fall overboard and his “inability to swim”.
The officer said Mr Lau lacked situational awareness of the hazards of the sea, resulting in him standing on his seat near the gunwale, and his sudden movement of straightening from a stooped position that caused him to lose his balance.
The officer said that the drowning may have been averted 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 with him an inflatable life jacket in a pouch when fishing, but he had not taken it with him that day.
CONCERNS OF THE DECEASED’S WIFE
Mr Lau’s wife raised several concerns during the coroner’s inquiry.
These include: That none of the passengers were offered life jackets even after Mdm Lily asked for them, that the life buoys were not easily deployable and did not have a rope attached to them, that the boatman did not jump into the sea to assist in rescuing her husband despite knowing how to swim, that there was no radio on the boat to call for assistance and the boatman did not deploy a signal flare and that the boat was not licensed to carry fare-paying passengers.
In response to the concerns of Mr Lau’s wife, the MPA investigating officer stated that there was no requirement for passengers on a pleasure craft to wear life jackets. There is also no requirement for the boatman to give passengers a safety briefing before setting off, nor a requirement that skippers be proficient in cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
On whether the boatman should have jumped into the sea to rescue Mr Lau, the officer stressed that “nobody is supposed to jump (into the sea) and pick them up, that’s not the way”.
The instruction for the skipper not to go into the sea to rescue a man overboard is consistent with the practice of the Red Cross of America. The mandate is to “reach or throw, don’t go” – so that the rescuer remains safe.
After the incident, MPA gave recommendations to prevent future similar incidents. The authority recommended that boaters be encouraged to wear life jackets, especially when there was an increased risk of falling overboard.
As part of this recommendation, port inspectors on patrol were briefed on the importance of wearing life jackets and sharing this safety measure with boaters.
MPA also carried out safety briefing sessions and used case studies to inform boaters to strongly encourage passengers to wear a life jacket.
LAPSES ON THE BOAT
The boat had been equipped with the required number of life jackets and life buoys, but the life jackets were not fitted with self-igniting lights, and the location of the life jackets was not clearly marked. They were also not evenly distributed throughout the boat.
The life buoys were not marked with the boat’s licence number and were not found ready for immediate use in an easily accessible position. The boat was also not equipped with a VHF radio.
The coroner said that the ideal course of events once the boatman thought Mr Lau could not swim, was to first throw a life buoy to him.
He should have then cut the anchor rope and driven the boat as close to Mr Lau as possible to rescue him.
The coroner said that what Mdm Lim’s sons, aged 13 and 11, did was “extremely brave and laudable”, but emphasised that it was also “potentially a very hazardous risk”.
“In these situations the primary method to save a person who is in trouble in the water, would be to throw out a flotation device, bring the boat next to the person and then pull him onto the boat, not to jump in and try to save them,” he said.
The boatman testified that he used the boat at least six times a week for leisure fishing, and had taken his friends along with him since 2019.
He usually charged S$70 per person as he provided bait, ice, snacks, drinks and to defray the cost of petrol. He claimed that he did not realise he was not allowed to collect money from passengers that he took out.
MPA took action against the boatman for various contraventions. He paid a fine of S$500 for flouting regulations, including for failing to ensure life jackets were properly stored and life buoys were ready for immediate use.
He was fined another S$150 for using his pleasure craft, which was only licensed for private use, for commercial purposes.