An experienced jet boat died of hypothermia after capsizing

Peter McKenzie, a Southland man, died following a boating incident at sea near the mouth of the Wairaurahiri River.


Peter McKenzie, a Southland man, died following a boating incident at sea near the mouth of the Wairaurahiri River.

Alcohol consumed by an experienced and skilled jet boater likely affected his boat’s handling and contributed to the hypothermia that caused his death in Fiordland, a coroner has said.

Peter McKenzie, 57, of Invercargill, died near the mouth of the Wairaurahiri River on September 7, 2019.

Coroner Heather McKenzie found he died of hypothermia, which occurred in the presence of high blood and urine alcohol levels in a jet boat crash.

The coroner issued his findings in November 2021.

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Maritime New Zealand has information on the risks of alcohol and boating, and a report from the Transport Accident Investigation Board into a fatal jet boat crash on the Hollyford River in March 2019 also included various observations about alcohol, the coroner says in his report.

In this context of existing hazard campaigns, the coroner makes no further recommendations.

McKenzie was recognized as an extremely experienced and skilled jet boat pilot, who designed and built boats, the coroner said.

On the day of his death, McKenzie was part of a group of about 10 people with three boats between them. He wore a life jacket, drove a six-liter, 4.8-meter V8 made by his company, and had a VHF radio, locator beacon and at least one flare and a cell phone.

A man aboard McKenzie’s boat described his driving through a tough section earlier today as “you couldn’t have done much better”.

As McKenzie rounded the coast to re-enter the Wairauhariri River on the return trip, “his demeanor changed and he appeared to become drowsy or dizzy,” the coroner said.

As they approached the mouth of the river, it is believed that the boat was swamped by a wave. McKenzie and the other two men from the boat were thrown from the boat into the cold, choppy waters and they swam to shore with the other two men helping McKenzie, the coroner said.

“The three men were exhausted and very cold when they reached the shore.”

“I will never forget how cold it was,” said one of the men.

Mouth of the Wairaurahiri River, where it meets the Strait of Foveaux.

Shirley Whyte / Stuff

Mouth of the Wairaurahiri River, where it meets the Strait of Foveaux.

McKenzie was “gravely ill”; one of the men left for help and about half an hour later McKenzie was believed to be dead, the coroner said.

Getting help took some time due to the remoteness and a helicopter initially couldn’t land due to the conditions, the coroner said.

The doctor who performed the autopsy observed “significantly elevated levels” of alcohol in McKenzie’s blood and urine. The analysis showed that his blood contained 214 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood and his urine was 237 mg per 100 ml, four times the legal limit for driving on the road.

Alcohol can hasten the onset of hypothermia, the doctor noted.

In the doctor’s opinion, alcohol was a major contributing factor to the hypothermia which, in turn, affected McKenzie’s driving. In the doctor’s opinion, McKenzie was showing signs of alcohol intoxication and hypothermia before the boat capsized.

Wayne Duffy sailed with McKenzie for 25 years. Speaking on behalf of McKenzie’s family and friends, Duffy said his mate has a fantastic personality.

“He would do anything for anyone, like his brother Morrell.” Morrell McKenzie died after his truck rolled over the edge of a dock in South Port in 2015.

Friends and family had even more questions after the coroner’s report into Peter McKenzie’s death, Duffy said.

They didn’t dispute the findings, but Duffy said “to just get sleepy [shortly before the capsizing] was not like Pete”.

Navigating the Wairaurahiri and Waitutu rivers required a great deal of skill, “and then all of a sudden it goes away? It’s not like Pete. If hypothermia set in, I don’t know,” Duffy said.

Duffy didn’t think there was any real point in appealing the coroner’s findings.

“What happened is damn tragic.”

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