Lifejacket required

17:00, Sep 07 2013
Drowned
TRAGIC WATERS: The Hauraki Gulf near Waiheke Island is where Jeff Erick-Peleti and Piira Aretio drowned.

Someone advised Stephanie Erick to take her daughter away from the house before telling her the news. Somewhere nice and quiet.

So she took Faith down to the waterfront at St Heliers, and told her that her father was dead. That Jeff Erick-Peleti had drowned, along with another of the seven men who had crowded into a boat to go fishing on Auckland's Hauraki Gulf on a blustery Sunday morning.

"Wrong place," says Erick. "Dumb me." Now, St Heliers is "a shithole for us. We don't ever want to go there."

jeff
DROWNED: Jeff Erick-Peleti perished along with another of the seven men who crowded into a boat to go fishing on Auckland's Hauraki Gulf.

Faith was six then, and she's noisy, just like her father was. There were people walking past, yet she screamed and shouted. She was yelling: "Why didn't anyone help him? Why didn't anyone help my dad? Why didn't they help him?"

Erick takes Faith to Niue each year, and the girl's a strong swimmer. "The rips in New Zealand are nothing. We get smashed up against rocks and we come in from swimming covered in cuts, and we can handle it," Erick says.

The day before the drownings, November 17, 2012, was a Saturday - church day for Seventh Day Adventists like Stephanie and Jeff. Their marriage ended in 2008 and Stephanie has a new partner and a young son, but she and Jeff were still so close they'd sometimes went together to their church in the east Auckland suburb of Glen Innes. They didn't care much what people said about that. "We were happily divorced."

Advertisement

They had joined their surnames when they married, and Jeff held on to Stephanie's "Erick" even after the divorce, in solidarity with their double-barrelled daughter.

Jeff had Faith with him most of the Saturday. He attended church in the morning and was back in the afternoon for choir, and then he took Faith to her "Adventurers" session (a sort of cubs for Seventh Day Adventists). Lunch, too, was with church friends - including some of the guys who would be on the water with him the next day.

Jeff was 36. He was a singer and a showman. Loud, but very quick-witted with it. He was big too - almost 2m tall, 225kg when he died according to the police summary of facts.

When he and Stephanie were at Glendowie College they were in all the musicals together - Grease, Little Shop of Horrors, Blues Brothers - but it wasn't until seventh form, when they played Hippolyta and Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that they started dating. They were both born in New Zealand, but Stephanie's parents were Niuean and Jeff's Samoan, so Jeff taught her a bit of Samoan, so she'd understand if friends or family tried to talk behind her back.

After school, Jeff worked as a security guard for a bit - logical, given his size - but later he moved into social work, earning a diploma then a degree and working for Auckland District Health Board and Child Youth and Family. While married, the couple bought a house in Glen Innes, but when Jeff died he had been mainly living in Australia, and was about to start a new job in Cairns. He was only in Auckland for a visit.

The point, says Stephanie, is that some people might have been short of sympathy when they heard about a couple of Pacific guys drowning after going fishing with mates on an overloaded boat without lifejackets, but these guys weren't fools.

"Jeff wasn't just a beneficiary, or an obese bugger who sat around, then went and drowned himself. He was a tertiary-qualified, home-owner of Glen Innes."

He wasn't really a risk-taker though he had been willing to go through a rapid called the "washing machine" when he and Stephanie were white-water rafting down the Zambesi river in South Africa. On his Facebook page you could see photos of another fishing trip he'd been on, but that was with some mates on a good-sized charter boat - a far cry from a 4.9 metre runabout.

Stephanie is employed by the Heart Foundation, working on anti-smoking projects with a Pasifika focus. Shortly before Jeff died she'd been talking with other organisations about ways to "keep fathers safe" in Pacific communities. Among the topics was Pacific men's reluctance to wear lifejackets when boating and fishing.

"We had discussions about maybe fining people, in the way we fine people for not wearing seatbelts. I was part of that discussion, which is one of the things that makes [the drownings] worse for me."

Jeff was a smart guy, but he made mistakes. When Stephanie received the bag from the police of the belongings he'd had with him on the day, there was a cellphone, but also jeans, and heavy shoes. And no lifejacket.

"If you're going in the water, why would you wear jeans? Jeff did it. He forgot his lifejacket. That's it. What else can you say?"

OVERLOADED

There were seven men on the Manakia when the 14-year-old aluminium runabout left the Half Moon Bay boat ramp on Sunday morning. The manufacturers' specifications say a Stabicraft 490 can carry up to six or seven people, but the recommended maximum weight is 600kg, and Jeff wasn't the only heavy guy. Another passenger, Piira Aretio, 34, weighed 118kg. The total weight of the men has been estimated as around 900kg, and subsequent police tests show that even when well balanced, the vessel would have had about 15cm of freeboard.

Survivors declined to talk to the Sunday Star-Times, but using Police and Coastguard documents, as well as some comments made to media in the days after the drownings, it's possible to piece together an idea of the morning's events.

It appears that at one point the fishermen considered taking two boats out, but for some reason a last-minute decision was take just one.

So three men squeezed into the two plastic seats intended for driver and passenger. Another lay in the cabin area up front, and the other three sat or stood nearer the back, where a piece of timber had been fitted loosely across the boat to form a makeshift bench. There were lifejackets on board, but they were not being worn.

The men's origins were from all over the Pacific - Cook Islands, Kiribati, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa - but they were all friends or relatives, and all connected to the Seventh Day Adventist congregations in Glen Innes and Mangere. The youngest was 30; the oldest 57.

Metumara Tariau, a youth leader at the Glen Innes church, had been a groomsman at Jeff's wedding. Samson Helu, another friend, was also a youth leader. The skipper was Tariau's uncle Te Karare Tapaanga, 57, a machine operator. The others were Kiribati factory worker Abera Katarake and Fijian Abdul Rasheed, a manager.

Around 9am, the Manakia, low in the water, motored north up the Tamaki Strait from Half Moon Bay, heading for a fishing spot off the southwest tip of Waiheke Island, about 15km away.

About the same time, Howick Rescue One, a 9.5 metre jet-powered rescue boat run by the Howick Volunteer Coastguard, left nearby Howick beach, its first destination the wharf at Matiatia on Waiheke, where the skipper, chartered engineer Ian Gibson, always liked to start his morning shift with a latte from the ferry terminal.

Most days out on patrol nothing happened - maybe a few breakdowns that needed a tow. In 14 years, Gibson had only personally pulled people out of the water on one occasion. Every now and then, though, it could get busy, and oddly enough, people fell out of their boats even on glassy calm days.

On November 18, though, it was far from glassy. MetService had issued a gale warning and the wind was blowing around 30 knots, gusting to 40. There was a swell of 1 to 1.5 metres, far from the roughest it gets in the Gulf, but still a "pretty shitty day" for fishing, in Gibson's opinion.

LYING ON LIFEJACKETS

By the time the seven fishermen had reached the spot between Park Point on Waiheke, and Crusoe Rock in the Sergeant Channel, the tide was nearing maximum flow. Unhelpfully, it was running in the opposite direction to the wind, making the waves taller and more widely spaced than they might otherwise have been.

As the men prepared to fish, the boat bobbed in the swell. Jeff, who was in the cabin area, was feeling seasick. According to one account, he was lying on some lifejackets.

Fearing he would throw up, Jeff got up and moved towards the stern of the Manakia. The boat's balance shifted drastically. With so little freeboard, water started coming over the stern. Someone grabbed a bucket and started bailing, but it was hopeless. More water. The boat flipped. For a moment it seemed funny, but very soon it wasn't.

At the Matiatia wharf, a few kilometres north, Gibson was enjoying his latte, and urging his three-man crew - plus a comms centre radio operator along for the ride - to practise their ropes and knots.

The fishermen, meanwhile, were treading water, and where possible clinging to the boat. At one point Aretio reportedly swam to another man who had been swept away, and helped him back. But the fast-moving tide meant that when the men lost their grip on the upside-down boat they were swept away from its relative safety.

At 9.45am Gibson and his crew heard a mayday call: "Hello. Hello. Can anybody help?"

The sound was garbled, but Gibson could make out the location - less than five minutes away. Howick Rescue One left the dock at speed.

When Gibson arrived, he saw two men still clinging to the Manakia's outboard motor. They hauled the pair to safety, and were told there were five others to worry about.

Leaving his shivering passengers to their own devices ("with people in the water you've just got to move"), Gibson started hunting. The first three were easy - they had already been taken aboard by three fishermen in a small blue boat. The boatload of rescuers and rescued pointed Gibson in the direction of Park Point, which was where the mayday had been called in, by a boatie who'd seen two men face-down in the water.

By now, there was a Navy Sea Sprite helicopter overhead, and the Westpac helicopter and police launch Deodar III were on their way. Gibson reached Park Point at the same time as the Coastguard's vessel Lion Foundation Rescue, and the two boats ran parallel until a Lion crewmember spotted something in the water to starboard and pulled away. It was two men, Jeff and Aretio.

Aretio was soon aboard Lion, where a crew member performed CPR. But the crew were struggling to pull the second, much larger, man aboard. Gibson pulled alongside Lion and three of his party jumped across to help. They still couldn't do it.

Eventually, the Westpac helicopter dropped a paramedic in the water to fit a harness to Jeff, and Lion winched him aboard. Another paramedic from the helicopter joined the crowd on Lion, but there was nothing more that could be done for the two men. CPR was stopped. It was 10.15am, just 75 minutes since seven men set out for a fishing trip from Half Moon Bay.

On the way to the Marine Rescue Centre on the Auckland waterfront, Gibson and crew tended to their passengers. One seemed dangerously cold, but he perked up after being given some oxygen. The other guy came right just from being wrapped in a blanket.

No one talked much.

SHE SAW A POLICE CAR COMING

Stephanie Erick had spent the morning at home with her one-year-old son, then went to see a Twilight film with a church friend. Faith had stayed the night with Jeff's mum's house.

Just before Stephanie headed out, her son was sitting in the car with the window open. Suddenly, the heavens opened and her boy ended up so wet he needed all his clothes changed. It was 10am on the dot.

"I don't believe in supernatural stuff," says Erick, "but . . ."

After the film, back at home, she still hadn't turned her phone back on, but her friend got a text: Erick needed to get to Jeff's mum's house.

As they pulled up, Erick was trying to press the buttons to check her voicemail, but her hands were shaking too much. She saw a police car arriving. Other cars too. Everyone was gathering. Jeff's friend Metu Tariau was there. Samson Helu. Other relatives.

Stephanie ran up the steps. Jeff's mother was inside, cooking chops.

Stephanie was panicking: Where was Faith? Where was Jeff? Had there been a car crash?

It was Metu's mother-in-law who said it, in Samoan: "Jeff's gone".

Stephanie had learnt enough from Jeff that the words didn't need translating. She fell down. She felt sick. She couldn't get up. "I was saying in my head get up Steph. Wipe your face."

Faith was fine. Jeff had left for the fishing trip while his daughter was still asleep, and then she had gone for brunch with Jeff's brother, so she didn't know anything was wrong. She was outside playing with friends and giggling, while all the adults were inside and crying.

Someone suggested Stephanie take Faith somewhere nice and quiet to tell her, and they headed down to the waterfront at St Heliers Bay, a place they can't go any more.

Te Karare Tapaanga, as owner, was charged with operating the Manakia "in a manner which caused unnecessary danger to any person or any property", which carries a maximum penalty of 12 months prison or a $10,000 fine. Last month he pleaded guilty in Auckland District Court, and has since taken part in restorative justice meetings involving the survivors and their families, as well as relatives of Jeff and Aretio. He is to be sentenced tomorrow.

Stephanie sometimes doesn't know what to say to Faith.

"What can you say? Sometimes I just walk away, because she's as vibrant as her dad. She's tall. She's just like him.

"She wrote a poem for her dad, and one of the things she always remembers is hugging him. It's the body. He's a fatty. That's what she liked about her dad - he had plenty of fat for [her to hug].

"Sometimes she says, ‘You know what mum? People keep saying he's in a better place, but I don't think so. How can he be in a better place? Because I'm not there yet. The place is going to be good when I get there.'

"I hate that," says Stephanie.

Sunday Star Times