Boatbuilder’s trial begins over drowning death of 13-year-old girl near Moruya

Albert McKnight 12 May 2021
Moruya River bar

A 13-year-old girl died at the Moruya River bar in 2018. Photo: Kim Treasure.

A Canberra schoolgirl was expecting to spend a morning on the water on the South Coast with her family and friends, before the boat she was in capsized and trapped her beneath the water.

The girl was only 13 years old when she drowned at the Moruya River bar on 24 March 2018.

On Tuesday (11 May), crown prosecutor Michael Fox gave the Nowra District Court harrowing details about the incident, including that the girl was heard banging on the inside of the boat’s cabin where she was trapped before she drowned.

Mr Fox alleged it was the “cavalier attitude” of the boat’s skipper, Alan Whittley, towards safety advice, and attempting to cross the bar without preparation, that resulted in her death.

The trial of Mr Whittley, a 32-year-old member of Melbourne’s Whittley Marine boatbuilding family and sales manager at their company, began a day earlier when he pleaded not guilty to a charge of causing death by culpably navigating in a dangerous manner.


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Mr Fox said at about 6:00 am on 24 March 2018, Mr Whittley took a 6.2-metre Whittley-brand fibreglass boat from Moruya’s town wharf down the Moruya River towards the ocean.

Onboard were the girl as well as her father, brother, friend and a friend of their family. Mr Fox said no one was wearing a lifejacket.

The boat approached the Moruya bar, which is where the Moruya River meets the ocean. Mr Fox said they saw another boat ahead of them which was operated by people going fishing. They would later describe conditions on the day as “rough”.

The fishers’ boat successfully crossed the bar and Mr Fox alleged the girl’s father told Mr Whittley to follow it.

But he said her father alleged they were then met with three waves in quick succession – the second crashed over their boat and filled it with water, then the third flipped it and they were all thrown into the ocean.

Mr Fox alleged a video filmed by a witness showed the boat approaching the bar before shooting vertically into the air and falling backwards.

By the time emergency services arrived the boat had moved out to sea. A scuba diver entered the capsized boat and recovered the girl’s body from inside its cabin.

Mr Fox alleged Mr Whittley admitted to police he had not checked a coastal webcam showing conditions on the bar that day, he knew it was an outgoing tide – which could cause waves to stand up – and that no one on board had been wearing a lifejacket.

He told police the three waves had “appeared out of nowhere”.

Mr Fox alleged Mr Whittley failed to make proper inquiries about the weather, did not check conditions at the bar, did not properly inspect the timing of the waves and used too much power when attempting to cross which caused the boat to shoot upright and fall backwards.


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Mr Whittley’s barrister, Arthur Moses SC of New Chambers, described the “much-loved” girl’s death as a “tragic accident”.

While he did not dispute his client being the boat’s skipper, he said the issue was whether or not he was driving the vessel in a dangerous way.

Mr Moses said the accident was caused by the combination of unexpected waves, along with a possible latent defect in the fuel filter of the boat’s Volvo Penta engine.

He said this possible defect could have caused the engine to stall and leave the boat’s occupants “at the mercy of the sea”.

Mr Fox told the jury the “sudden death of a young person going about her life is very, very tragic” and it was natural to feel sympathy for the girl, her family and even Mr Whittley.

“[But] you need to put the sympathy aside and consider the evidence in the trial in the cold, hard light of day,” he said.

The trial continues before Judge Nicole Norman.


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