Safety Lessons from Marine Incident Investigation (AMSA Report) – No.4 – February 2022

Towing of vessel in distress leads to back injury


The skipper of a recreational sailing vessel which was under tow by a Class 2C Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR) vessel, fell from the weather deck into the cockpit during rough conditions, landing heavily on another person. The person sustained a serious injury to their back which required medical assistance. 

What happened 

At about 1150 on 26 October 2020, a sailing vessel called the local VMR service for towing assistance due to damage to the vessel’s retractable keel and a disabled outboard motor. The sailing vessel was anchored approximately 100 metres from shore in shallow waters. The sailing vessel had pumped 600 litres of ballast water onboard to compensate for the loss of its retractable keel but was still subjected to considerable wave action, just in front of the shore break.  

The persons on board the sailing vessel were hampered by the motion on the vessel as they attended to the instructions by the crew of the VMR vessel. This was compounded by some intricacy around the connection of the tow hook given the proximity of the shore break, a nearby mooring buoy causing an obstruction and the nature of the ‘open hook’ towing connection. Upon retrieval of the sailing vessel’s anchor, weight immediately came onto the tow and both vessels proceeded into the increasing seaway. The sailing vessel was subjected to considerable wave action in a wind against tide condition and the skipper reportedly slipped and fell onto his companion seated below in the vessel cockpit, resulting in a compression injury to their back. The companion was subsequently transferred to another vessel for medical evacuation. 

Investigation findings 

The investigation identified the following contributory factors: 

  • Adverse weather conditions 
  • Drop down keel board not available for service and consequent instability of the sailing vessel 
  • The difficult circumstances at time of tow connection 
  • The sailing vessel owners were relatively unfamiliar with their new vessel and the knowledge required of their obligations in a rescue scenario, resulting in reduced confidence, uncertainty, anxiety and a sense of urgency (self-imposed as declared). 
  • Difficult access from the bow to the cockpit of the sailing vessel 
  • Lack of proper risk assessment by the VMR vessel for towing operations with inexperienced people 
  • The skipper of the sailing vessel reported a slippery weather deck. 

Safety message 

This incident indicates that masters and crew of VMR vessels need to comprehensively assess the risks involved in towing vessels operated by inexperienced people, especially if there appears to be no immediate danger. This risk assessment needs to recognise particular social elements as they present themselves and be handled with sensitivity, respect, and clear communication. This assessment needs to result in an evaluation of the risks of imminent danger to life and environment, associated with towing the rescued vessel in the crewed condition.  

An assessment and research into the viability of the towing hook arrangement used presently in these types of vessels needs to occur. A more suitable device or method may be required. 

Last updated: 9 May 2022