Two men shared a sole lifejacket as they floated in the dark sea off the Horowhenua coast, watching search lights from boats and a helicopter.
After hours in the water Foxton man Colin Chrystall, 38, was unable to hold on any longer. His friend Kerry Golding made desperate efforts to keep him afloat but in the end had to let him go.
While Chrystall's body was not recovered, Coroner Carla na Nagara has today released a finding that he died of drowning in the early hours of the morning of October 23, 2011 in the Tasman Sea off the coast of Hokio.
"Mr Chrystall's death may well have been prevented had he had a lifejacket on, and been carrying or had immediate access to other emergency equipment such as flares, lights, waterproof communication equipment and a personal locator beacon," she said.
Golding told the inquest Chrystall had been slipping off the lifejacket and becoming submerged. He went under two or three more times and it was about the third time he brought him back that Chrystall was lifeless.
"I'm not sure how long I held him for; it could have been five minutes or could have been 15. Time was irrelevant and I had no idea how long we had been in the water. For my own survival I was forced to let him go," Golding said.
The trip that ended in tragedy had started when the men set out to sea in Chrystall's catamaran Horizon, intending to give new motors in the boat a run. They crossed the Foxton bar about 6pm and advised the Manawatu Boating Club their estimated return time was 7.30pm.
After they anchored at a fishing spot about two kilometres out to sea, Golding saw water seemed to be coming up through the back of the boat, the coroner's report said.
Chrystall turned bilge pumps on and the two men started to prepare to head off.
"By that stage the back of the boat was gumboot deep in water. The engines were nearly submerged. Mr Chrystall realised that the boat was sinking and asked Mr Golding to jump on the VHF radio and call in a mayday," the coroner said.
Golding made two mayday calls. The first time he mistakenly used the name of his own boat.
Chrystall was at the back of the boat, then yelled to get off as the boat was going down. Golding had said that within a matter of seconds Chrystall jumped off the boat as the back was completely submerged.
Golding was stuck in the cabin. He dived down under the cabin and pulled himself out, grabbing one lifejacket as he did so. Within about 30 seconds the boat was gone.
"The men removed their gumboots and made a pact to stick together while they were in the water," the coroner said.
Using the lifejacket to float, the men drifted south and could see Waitarere Beach approaching, but then the tide changed and they were pushed out.
"As the hours passed, the men became colder, and began cramping," the coroner said.
"Mr Golding told Mr Chrystall to lie over the lifejacket with his arms in front of it, and Mr Golding grabbed a corner of the lifejacket and pulled him along. The men could see search lights from a search helicopter, and from search boats. At one stage the search light from the boat was an estimated 800 to 1000 metres away before the boat turned around."
After Golding let Chrystall go he could hear waves breaking on a beach. He floated on, using the lifejacket as support and eventually hit the shore. Seeing a set of lights in the distance he headed along the beach and about 4.30am came upon a local man who was intending to go whitebaiting at the Ohau River mouth.
Coroner na Nagara said the case demonstrated the imperative of wearing lifejackets, as well as carrying other emergency equipment such as lights, waterproof communication equipment and personal locator beacons - or at least having the latter items within reach on a boat where they could be easily grabbed in case of a rapid sinking.
"Had the men had a light source or flares it is highly likely they would have been found, as it is clear air and surface search assets were in the immediate vicinity as they were fighting for survival adrift in the open sea," she said.
The Horizon had not been found, and it had not been established why water had come in at the back of the boat causing it to sink.
The coroner said the two mayday calls sent by Golding had not been successfully transmitted. They were not heard at the Manawatu Boating Club.
She also considered the time taken to get a search under way, saying it was significant the boat's return time had been about 15 minutes before sunset.
"The fact that the sun was setting and the boat was overdue in rapidly decreasing light was in my view a matter that should have been responded to with more urgency," the coroner said.
In her view the only timeframe that was questionable was that Horizon was 60 minutes overdue before the Coastguard was considered formally notified of the fact, and steps taken to start a search.
It seemed to have taken 30 minutes to establish whether the Horizon's trailer was in the carpark, or at least to convey that information. Then efforts continued for a further 30 minutes to try to get a response from Horizon.
The coroner said she took no issue with perhaps 30 minutes leeway while attempts were made to contact a boat and to check whether boaties had returned, but she was concerned with the further 30 minutes that were taken.
"I stress however that on the facts of this case I do not consider what I perceive to have been a 30-minute delay in confirming formally with the Coastguard that the Horizon was overdue and could not be reached contributed to Mr Chrystall's death."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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