'Queen of the Kaipara' says Francie boating tragedy shows danger of 'roaring' Kaipara seas

Flora Thirkettle, 'the Queen of the Kaipara', on the wharf she built at her house in Helensville, northwest of Auckland.
JOSH FAGAN

Flora Thirkettle, 'the Queen of the Kaipara', on the wharf she built at her house in Helensville, northwest of Auckland.

Flora Thirkettle has seen a lot of shipwrecks but none like this.

The 88-year-old said last Saturday's capsizing of The Francie charter boat has stunned the community and sounded a warning of just how "roaring" and "wild" the Kaipara seas could be.

She has spent her life fishing by the old wrecks of the Kaipara Harbour, near the sandbar area known as the 'graveyard'.

"The Queen of the Kaipara" has spent her life fishing the waters of the Kaipara Harbour catching plenty of fish like the ...
PETER MEECHAM

"The Queen of the Kaipara" has spent her life fishing the waters of the Kaipara Harbour catching plenty of fish like the Seven Gilled Shark jaw she holds in this photo.

Thirkettle, whose fishing exploits have earned her the nickname 'the Queen of the Kaipara', said people needed to be aware of the serious hazards of the Kaipara.

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The bar that The Francie attempted to cross had the potential to be "wild", she said.

Flora Thirkettle, who's known as 'the Queen of the Kaipara', stands in front of the Helensville Cruiser Club with the ...
JOSH FAGAN

Flora Thirkettle, who's known as 'the Queen of the Kaipara', stands in front of the Helensville Cruiser Club with the national flag at half mast.

"You can easily lose control with the flow of water going out if the wind is going the wrong way.

"There's a terrific tide that roars out of the Kaipara and if you've got a strong wind coming in, which is predominantly southwesterly, it's fighting against the strong tide going out and creating the massive steep, big headed waves."

"It was obviously a strong southwesterly (last Saturday) because none of the other fellas went out." 

She is critical of Francie's skipper Bill McNatty making the decision to cross the bar.

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"There's no reason they should have crossed the bar," she said.

"There were a lot of other commercial fishermen down there and none of them went out over the bar. It was obviously a mistake. The boats that were in there that stayed in the harbour got all the fish they wanted." 

Onboard one of the boats that remained in the harbour was her son, grandson and some of her great grandchildren.

She said her daughter rang her with the news that a boat capsized and for a brief moment she feared she may have lost three generations of family. 

"She (my daughter) heard a few people talking about it on their yuppy phones and she rang up and told me they had a problem down there. But luckily she rang back once they found out it wasn't Reggie."

Thirkettle, who knows the area better than almost anyone, got into commercial fishing as a solo mum in order to feed her seven children.

"When I bought this house it had a boat with it and a dinghy, with two nets in it. I got enough fish to pay for the house and the boat and rearing seven kids."

She said the area was good for catching mullet, flounder, kahawai, and occasionally sharks - she uses their livers for shark oil. 

It was an increasingly popular harbour for charter boats, or "party boats", as she refers to them.

The ill-fated journey of The Francie on Saturday afternoon claimed the lives of a group of friends, along with skipper William "Bill" McNatty.

​There were seven confirmed dead and one man still classed as missing on Tuesday.

Thirkettle said there were a lot of lessons that would emerge from the incident.

"I just hope people take notice of what happened and don't do it themselves."

LATEST ON THE SEARCH FOR MISSING MAN

The search for Taulagi Afamasaga, 56, continued on Tuesday.

Search and rescue officers on quad bikes scoured beaches at low tide at the northern tip of South Head while the Police Eagle Helicopter carried out more aerial sweeps of the shoreline south and north of Kaipara Heads.

Meanwhile the Transport Accident Investigation Commission now has four investigators working on its inquiry into the sinking. 

The focus is on gathering information from the survivors, next of kin, police, members of the Kaipara boating community, and the Coastguard, TAIC said in a statement.

Chief Investigator Captain Tim Burfoot said the Commission team was keen to gather as much information as soon as it could while memories remained fresh.

A great deal of information had already been collected "but it is still early days in the investigation."

Some debris washed up on local Kaipara beaches had been collected by police and would be passed to the Commission for analysis.

"The location of the wreck is currently unknown. The Commission will consider that aspect of the inquiry once all other evidence has been gathered and analysed."

Captain Burfoot said the gathering of evidence would continue for some time. The Commission had the ability to issue urgent safety recommendations at any stage if required.

 - Stuff

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