A tragic set of circumstances for which nobody was to blame led to the drowning of Colin McCormick on Lake Rotoiti, a court has heard.

The coronial inquest into the death of 49-year-old McCormick was held today in Rotorua before Coroner Wallace Bain.

It found that a combination of a temperamental outboard motor, windy conditions and the lack of a life jacket led to the Auckland graphic designer's death.

McCormick's mother Shirley, brothers Gavin and Lance and sister-in-law Lisa were present.


McCormick, described as an proficient swimmer with 30 years' surfing experience, died on January 4, 2017 after jumping off his boat to retrieve a hat.

Kaumatua Te Ariki Morehu blessing the Coastguard launch used in the search for Colin McCormick. Photo/file
Kaumatua Te Ariki Morehu blessing the Coastguard launch used in the search for Colin McCormick. Photo/file

Six weeks earlier he had bought the 13-foot Sea Nymph boat. It was bought privately in an "as is where is" condition. McCormick and his partner Alison Kirkman took the boat out once prior on Kawakawa Bay on December 30.

While holidaying at Lake Rotoiti, the couple and McCormick's 9-year-old son launched the boat into Te Karaka Bay with plans to travel to the Manupirua Hot Pools on the far side of Lake Rotoiti.

According to the evidence given by Senior Constable Colin Fraser, all three were wearing life jackets at the time and the weather conditions were sunny with up to 20-knot winds.

But before exiting the inlet McCormick removed his life jacket telling Kirkman it was annoying him.

Near the 5-knot yellow buoy McCormick's hat blew into the water and after trying to retrieve it, he jumped into the water. During this time the boat started drifting away, driven by the wind.

He yelled for Kirkman to "come and get me" and "throw me the life jacket". She recalled that his voice sounded like he was panicking.

Flowers at the Otaramarae Road jetty at Lake Rotoiti for Colin McCormick. Photo/file
Flowers at the Otaramarae Road jetty at Lake Rotoiti for Colin McCormick. Photo/file

After trying several times to start the boat's motor she heard a scream and a gurgle and McCormick was nowhere to be seen.

Emergency services were alerted and eight days later McCormick's body was found.

At the time it was suspected McCormick suffered a medical event while in the water but a post mortem examination determined there was no evidence of that.

Gavin McCormick told the court his brother had a history of panic attacks and asthma.

An assessment of the boat after the incident found an internal fault in its engine, making it difficult to get the engine running and into gear.

Boating expert Geoff Thomas said it was a "tragic set of circumstances which illustrate just how quickly things can turn bad".

"Even for a strong swimmer, it is often impossible to catch up to a drifting boat, which then leads to panic.

"The motor is an integral part of the circumstances which resulted in this tragedy and highlights the importance of a boat skipper ensuring somebody else on the boat knows how to operate the engine."

Thomas went on to add, supported by Coroner Bain, that Kirkman was in no way responsible for what happened and couldn't have known there was an issue with the boat's motor.

Coroner Bain concluded that this was a "tragic, tragic accident" and would aim to release his findings before Christmas in the hopes it would save somebody else's life.

Speaking to the Rotorua Daily Post after the inquest, family spokesman Gavin McCormick said it was the milestones in the last 11 months that highlighted the loss of his brother most.

"If you take away the eight-day search, it has been a loss like any other, it's the birthdays and anniversaries when you feel it the most.

"But you move forward and while no new information has come from this inquest, it has confirmed what we thought and has made it clear there was nothing Alison could have done, it was a tragic accident."

He said the family had been back to Lake Rotoiti numerous times this year and planned to be back there on the anniversary of McCormick's death.

"We will be going out on the lake on his anniversary to do a memorial to him, the local iwi has been really supportive with what we want to do.

"I would just want to stress that if you have a new boat, think about how you are using it the first dozen times until you are fully aware of all its idiosyncrasies. Even Colin may have struggled starting that boat in those circumstances."