Frantic efforts to save yachtsman in vain

EXPERIENCED SAILOR: Charlie Gallagher died in a yachting accident near Cape Jackson in the outer Marlborough Sounds.
EXPERIENCED SAILOR: Charlie Gallagher died in a yachting accident near Cape Jackson in the outer Marlborough Sounds.

For more than an hour Jo Ivory tried everything she could to save her sailing companion, but in the end she could only watch as he died in cold, heavy seas.

Charlie Gerard Gallagher, 52, was not wearing a lifejacket or a harness when a large wave swept him from his 11 metre racing yacht - Mrs Jones - in the outer Marlborough Sounds about 2pm on Saturday.

The well-known Nelson sailor had also been drinking before the fatal incident at the entrance to Cape Jackson, police said.

Ms Ivory, a Blenheim real estate agent, yesterday recounted her frantic attempts to rescue her friend as he fought to keep his head above water.

"I know I did everything I physically could to save him."

The pair were sailing from Nelson to Picton.

They had stopped at Catherine Cove that morning to watch the America's Cup where Mr Gallagher had a few beers, but "not too many".

He had just emerged from below deck, when he was swept overboard wearing full wet-weather gear.

"A wave slammed into the boat ... but he didn't have any time to grab anything. He went straight across the cockpit, through the life lines and into the sea," she said.

"I couldn't believe it. It just happened in a spilt second."

Ms Ivory tossed Mr Gallagher a lifebuoy and lowered the sails before manoeuvring closer to him using the yacht's motor.

"The seas were huge [but] I never lost sight of him."

She threw him a rope, pulled him to the side of the boat and tied it around his waist. She then tried repeatedly to haul him on board using a winch and also a makeshift ladder.

However, he was too heavy and refused to remove his clothes, she said.

She remembers yelling at Mr Gallagher: "You're a strong bugger, you've lasted this long - you're going to get on board."

However, his strength began to fade as the cold water took its toll, she said.

About 30 minutes after the ordeal began she realised the situation was hopeless and called for help, but "he fought right to the end to get on board".

When he was winched from the sea by the Westpac rescue helicopter, she believed he would survive.

Ms Ivory believes the ordeal highlights the importance of harnesses and lifejackets.

Sergeant Kris Payne said paramedics gave Mr Gallagher CPR inside the helicopter, but the father of four was pronounced dead soon after.

Police did not know if he drowned, or died of hypothermia or an existing medical condition, Mr Payne said. Maritime New Zealand is investigating.

Mr Gallagher was recently separated from his wife Sue, who said Mrs Jones, launched in 2006, was the yacht her husband had always dreamed of.

"She was named after the song Me and Mrs Jones, because of the 'thing' he had going on with [the yacht].

"It was always Charlie and Mrs Jones."

Long-time crew member Mark Howard, of Nelson, who had sailed with Mr Gallagher for about a decade, said: "That boat was him. It was his dream. He just loved being at sea on it.

"Charlie had a heart of gold. He was always there to give good advice."

The Dominion Post