Desperate attempts were made to save Charlie Gallagher after he was swept from his yacht by a large wave, but in the end his sailing companion could only watch as he died in heavy seas.
Mr Gallagher, 52, was not wearing a life jacket or harnessed in to his 11 metre Elliot racing yacht 'Mrs Jones' when he fell overboard in heavy seas, near Cape Jackson in the outer Marlborough Sounds, about 2pm yesterday. The Nelson sailor had also been drinking, police said.
He and a woman were sailing through the treacherous stretch of water toward Picton.
Sergeant Kris Payne, of Picton, said Mr Gallagher, of Blenheim, was swept overboard by a large wave in ''gnarly seas'' while wearing full wet-weather gear.
His companion dropped the sail and tried desperately to save him using a rope and a winch, but after multiple attempts she could only watch as the experienced sailor succumbed to the conditions.
A mayday call was made and emergency services responded, with the Westpac rescue helicopter from Wellington first to arrive, police said.
The man was winched from the water into the helicopter where CPR was performed. He was pronounced dead soon after.
''It's obviously a traumatic event and she [the sailing companion] will be going through a range of emotions,'' Payne said.
Mr Gallagher had been drinking, but ''the levels of intoxication have not been established yet''.
Police did not know if he drowned, died of hypothermia or an existing medical condition. The death has been referred to the coroner. Maritime New Zealand is investigating.
Mr Gallagher was recently separated from his wife Sue, who said today that Mrs Jones was the yacht her husband had always dreamed of.
The yacht was launched in Auckland in early 2006 and delivered to Nelson where a champagne launch was held.
"Mrs Jones was exactly what he wanted. He loved the designs of Greg Elliott.
"She was named after the song Me and Mrs Jones, because of the 'thing' he had going on with her. "It was always Charlie and Mrs Jones."
Mrs Jones was built primarily for racing but was adapted so it could also serve as a family cruising boat. She said the family, including their four children Tim, Kelsee, Ross and Abby, had had many great sailing holidays in the Abel Tasman National Park.
The tight-knit Nelson yachting community was in shock at the loss of a ''great guy'' and very experienced yachtsman.
Long-time crew member Mark Howard of Nelson, who has sailed with Mr Gallagher for around a decade, said of his friend and his yacht, ''that boat was him. It was his dream.
''He just loved being at sea on it.''
Mr Howard described Gallagher as a ''good mate''. ''We had a lot of fun, not just racing but on delivery trips around New Zealand.
''Charlie had a heart of gold. He's been great to me and my family. He was always there to give good advice.''
Tasman Bay Cruising Club commodore John Cotton said today he knew, unofficially, of the tragedy while people gathered in the club's headquarters this morning to watch the America's Cup racing, but did not want to break the news.
''I heard hearsay about half way through this morning's event but decided it was not the time and place to announce it, and it had not been officially confirmed,'' Mr Cotton said.
''Charlie was a great guy and a very experienced sailor. he was very well liked."
He said anyone who knew the area around Cape Jackson knew it was a treacherous headland.
Marlborough District Council harbour ranger Alex Moore said they were aware of the mayday call, but they had not been called to assist, as emergency calls were dealt with by the Rescue Co-ordination Centre.
Despite an electrical storm on Friday evening, and a lot of rain passing through, conditions were not overly stormy in the Sounds yesterday, residents said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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