Couple safe and well after fire destroys boat
SARAH DUNN AND BILL MOORE
A retired couple escaped with only their cat after their historic launch caught fire off Pepin Island.
Gary and Carol Ardern, from Auckland, had to abandon the Tarapunga, a former naval harbour defence launch, when it caught fire early yesterday afternoon.
They were en route from Auckland and about 5km off Pepin Island when the fire broke out. It apparently started near the exhaust system.
Constable Shane Ohlson of Nelson said the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter did an aerial search, while the Sealord fishing boat Aukaha went to assist. The helicopter arrived at the scene as the Nelson harbourmaster's boat and a coastguard vessel were en route. They found the Tarapunga well ablaze.
The Tarapunga was commissioned in 1943, and sold to private owners in 1984.
Harbourmaster Dave Duncan said the couple had intended to live on board the boat in Nelson.
He said they escaped the fire uninjured, although Mrs Ardern had an existing health condition that was aggravated by shock.
She was taken to Nelson Hospital by St John Ambulance after the Arderns arrived at Port Nelson aboard the coastguard boat at approximately 2.30pm. The couple were treated for smoke inhalation.
Duncan said their cat Sylvie also survived, and was cared for by the SPCA last night.
He said the Arderns had recovered from yesterday's ordeal.
"They are doing well, considering the traumatising experience they had been through and survived."
Their boat was too damaged to save. It had two holes in its side and was taking on water. It was towed several kilometres off Pepin Island and sunk in deep water.
Duncan said he understood that the couple had another boat in Auckland. He had offered to host them at his home for as long as they needed.
He praised the Aukaha's crew, saying they did an "amazing job" in tragic circumstances.
Aukaha skipper Raymond Armstrong said the response to the fire was a good illustration of how training paid off when things went wrong at sea.
Armstrong was bringing the 45-metre Sealord trawler and its crew home from a month-long fishing trip when he heard the Arderns' distress call at 12.38pm yesterday. The Aukaha was 40 minutes away, and immediately changed course to go and help the stricken Tarapunga.
The boat was well ablaze when the Aukaha arrived, and the Arderns were rowing away in a rubber inflatable dinghy.
Armstrong dispatched the ship's first mate and bosun and a deckhand in the Aukaha's Zodiac rescue boat. They were able to help the couple into Port Nelson's pilot boat, which arrived about the same time, with the harbourmaster on board.
He then took the Aukaha close in to the burning boat and used its firefighting system from the bow, playing the major part in putting out the fire. The coastguard boat used its own fire hose from the other side.
The Aukaha also acted as on-scene co-ordinator until the harbourmaster returned and took control. It was stood down at 3.45pm, and was due to berth at Port Nelson at 10pm last night, having missed the tide for an earlier arrival.
Armstrong said it was good for his crew to see the results of their fire and safety drills.
"This was a prime example of everyone ticking and coming away with an awesome result."
Everything ran well, from the maritime radio coordination to the response from the coastguard, his own vessel and even a couple of container ships that were leaving Port Nelson and ready to assist, he said.
"It was really good to see that everyone's out there to help out. Obviously, the big blue wobbly thing can be dangerous sometimes."
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