Pair recount 'sickening, awful feeling'

00:00, Mar 07 2014
The Tarapunga, a former United States harbour defence launch, caught fire about 12.45pm yesterday about 5km off Pepin Island.
The Ardens were rowing away in a rubber inflatable dinghy (top right) when rescuers arrived.
HELP ARRIVES: The Sealord trawler Aukaha and the Nelson Coastguard boat fight the fire.
Gary Arden escaped the burning boat without injury.

Watching their boat go up in flames was a "sickening" experience for an Auckland couple, though they feel overwhelmed by the support of Nelsonians since thier ordeal.

Gary and Carol Ardern lost their historic boat Tarapunga on Wednesday when fire broke out on board about 5km off Pepin Island. The boat was later sunk.

The couple bought the United States-built vessel, used by the New Zealand navy as a harbour defence launch, when they saw it "lying almost derelict" in Picton last year.

Carol Ardern and Gary Ardern
UNDETERRED: Gary and Carol Ardern talk about the escape they made from their burning launch.

On Wednesday morning they were near Pepin Island when Carol noticed smoke. Gary went to check the engine room and saw black smoke, a fire had started.

He yelled at his wife to get on deck while he put an emergency call out on the radio. He thought he would be able to put it out.

"I managed to read the position despite not having my glasses and the smoke everywhere.


"I then wrestled the dingy over the side, then I thought about the cat, I didn't want her to be incinerated so I went back and got her, by then the flames were coming out down the hatch.

"She was hiding under a bunk bed, I grabbed her which is hard to do at the best of times. I gave her to Carol who stuffed her under her jersey."

He then tried to put out the fire with buckets of water, but realised it was futile. The couple jumped into the dingy and started to row away from the burning boat.

Mr Ardern said he was worried about the gas bottles exploding.

Watching the boat burn was a "pretty sickening awful feeling".

They saw the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter circling overheard, while the Sealord fishing boat Aukaha and a coastguard vessel arrived at the same time.

"We feel lucky, but we never felt our lives were threatened as we had the dingy to escape," Mr Ardern said.

"A young guy from the fishing vessel picked me up and helped me into the pilot vessel, he was my hero," said Mrs Ardern..

Both were treated for smoke inhalation and their cat Sylvie was taken to the SPCA. They hoped to collect her today. 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.

The couple said they were "overwhelmed" with the rescue effort and the support they have received from the Nelson community.

They were staying at harbourmaster Dave Duncan's home.

"He has a heart of gold," said Mrs Ardern. "On the way back, before anyone said a anything about what we would do, he said ‘you can stay with me as long as you need'."

They wanted to give special thanks to the crew of the Sealord vessel Aukura "for their very prompt response" ,the Coastguard, St John ambulance, Nelson Hospital staff, and the SPCA.

The Warehouse supplied them with clothes, as theirs were smoky and wet.

They had a home in Pt Chevalier in Auckland and "it was only stuff, nothing personal" on the boat.

Despite their harrowing experience, they were not put off the sea. They were considering selling their yacht in Auckland and buying a launch to spend their retirement on.

"We are not giving up on the water, I've been on it for 63 years," Mr Ardern said.

Mr Ardern said the Tarapunga was used as a New Zealand navy harbour defence launch in the 1940s and then as a survey vessel around much of the coastline.

He thought it had about five different owners since it was used by the navy. It slept 10, and had three cabins.

"We thought it was a waste, but there was a lot to do," said Mrs Ardern. "It was very run down, and still very 1942 inside, with about 1000 coats of paint over the years, even over the electrical wires," she said.

They had planned to restore and refit the vessel while berthed in Nelson marina. Mr Ardern had bought equipment to start working on it, which was lost in the fire.

The couple had spent time in Nelson over the past few years, and wanted to spend their retirement between here and Auckland.

The Nelson Mail