Man dies after yacht fall

Swept overboard by a large wave

BLAIR ENSOR, TRACY NEAL AND KAT DUGGAN
Last updated 12:43 22/09/2013
Mrs Jones yacht
HIGH SEAS: Charles Gallagher's yacht, Mrs Jones, pictured in 2007.

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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.

Gallagher, 52, was not wearing a life jacket or harnessed in to his 11-metre Elliot racing yacht, Mrs Jones, when he fell overboard near Cape Jackson in the outer Marlborough Sounds, about 2pm yesterday.

The well known 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 Gallagher, living in Blenheim at the time, 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.

Gallagher 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.

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.

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 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.

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Long-time crew member Mark Howard, of Nelson, who has sailed with 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.''

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 halfway through this morning's event but decided it was not the time and place to announce it, and it had not been officially confirmed,'' Cotton said.

The news has spread fast around Nelson, with many shocked at how such an experienced coastal and offshore yachtsman could die this way.

''Charlie was a great guy and a very experienced sailor. He was very well liked,'' Cotton said, clearly upset.

He said anyone who knew the area around Cape Jackson knew it was treacherous headland.

Cotton's father Mike Cotton, who has known Gallagher for around 15 years, said the Elliott yacht Mrs Jones, which he had had built for him, was his pride and joy.

Mike Cotton, a long-standing yachting identity in Nelson, sailed with Gallagher many times as the pair crewed on each other's yachts.

Cotton was too upset to speak, other than to endorse Gallagher's skill as a racing yachtsman who was experienced at handling coastal conditions.

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.

"That's all we know," he said.

A Wellington Westpac rescue helicopter spokesman said he could not provide any more information.

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.

"Probably this last 2-3 days has been the worst rain we've had for some time here," Tom Winter, of Double Cove, said.

"It was non-stop yesterday, very still and just torrential rain, it's still coming down now.''

- Stuff

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