Foveaux Strait survivor determined to see sons' birthdays

SOUTHLAND TIMES REPORTERS AND MICHAEL DALY
Last updated 19:10 16/03/2012
MARCUS WILD

Dallas Reedy, who survived the sinking of The Easy Rider, tells of his ordeal staying alive for 18 hours in the water before being rescued.

Easy Rider search
ROBYN EDIE Zoom
A coastguard boat unloads debris and refuels during the search for the Easy Rider.
Shane Ronald Topi
Shane Ronald Topi, 29, of Invercargill, died in the sinking.
EASY RIDER SKIPPER: Rewai Karetai.
Fairfax NZ
EASY RIDER SKIPPER: Rewai Karetai.

Boating tragedy

Police briefing on Easy Rider

Easy Rider, a 38-foot vessel, capsized off Saddle Point at the northern tip of Stewart Island at about midnight on Wednesday.
Fairfax NZ
LOST AT SEA: Easy Rider, a 38-foot vessel, capsized off Saddle Point at the northern tip of Stewart Island at about midnight on Wednesday.
Dallas Reedy
DOUG FIELD/Fairfax NZ
The survivor of the Foveaux Strait capsizing, Dallas Reedy, speaks to media at Invercargill Hospital.

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A petrol can dubbed "Wilson" saved Dallas Reedy from the clutches of the sea, after the Easy Rider capsized in Foveaux Strait on Wednesday night.

Invercargill freezing worker Reedy, 44, survived more than 18 hours in the sea, using the can to stay afloat.

He dubbed it "Wilson" after the Tom Hanks film Castaway.

"I sang to him. I talked to him. I just did everything I could to stay alive," he said.


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Reedy went to school with Robert Hewitt, who survived at sea off the Kapiti Coast for four days and three nights in 2006.

Reedy was running out of fight toward the end of his ordeal, he said from his hospital bed.

"I was ready to cross over, and that's made me a lot more relaxed. I talked to myself and to Wilson."

He was determined to stay alive so he could see his sons' 16th and 18th birthdays next week.

"I'm rapt to be here, I didn't want to die, I fought hard to stay alive for my family."

Reedy never saw the wave that swamped the Easy Rider but he certainly heard it, about midnight on Wednesday.

"I was sitting on the deck and I heard it, like a wind rushing, like a train,” he said.

"It was dark but I heard it coming. I don’t know big it was.”

The wave "blew" him off the boat and into the water.

"I thought, ‘I’m gone,’ I just flailed my arms out and managed to hold onto a rope," Reedy said.

He clambered onto the hull of the upturned boat, and tucked himself in near the propeller where he was "battered for two hours by big waves I couldn’t see".

Then he heard air escaping from the boat and knew it was sinking.

With less than a metre of the boat left out of the water Reedy "stepped off into the black" and was thinking "this is my time", when the petrol can that was to help keep him afloat for the next 16 hours popped up out of the water.

While he had clung to the upturned boat he had listened for any signs that people might be alive under it, but heard nothing, and said he was too frightened to climb under the hull to check, as he feared he would not make it back.

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Around mid-afternoon on Thursday a helicopter pilot, who Reedy understood had seen an oil slick, had hovered only about 50 metres away from him but did not see him.

In the next few hours the sea buzzed with boats and there were more helicopters in the air but it wasn't until 6pm that he caught the attention of a coastguard boat.

Reedy said he threw the petrol can in the air and tried to scream, although his tongue had swollen up.

"They went past me. I came up on the wake and shook the tin."

Then a "young chap" at the back of the boat pointed at him and from then on "it was just mayhem".

His eyes were red from the petrol that had been in the can that kept him afloat and one hand was grazed from holding onto it, but he otherwise showed no signs of his ordeal.
 
Four bodies have now been found, with Bluff Coastguard president Andy Johnson confirming the fourth, an adult male found about 4pm north of where the Easy Rider lay under water, he said.
 
Bluff skipper Rewai Karetai, a hero of past rescues in the same chilly seas, was among those now missing feared dead, as was his crew member Shane Topi.

Police announced the missing at a press conference in Invercargill, saying they had recovered three bodies - one identified as Topi - while five remained lost at sea. About 5.30pm they announced a fourth had recovered.

The missing were: Shane Ronald Topi, 29; William Rewai Desmond Karetai, 47; Paul Jason Fowler-Karetai, 40; Odin Karetai, 7; Boe Taikawa Gillies, 28; John Henry Karetai, 58; Peter Glen Pekamu-Bloxham, 53; David George Fowler, 50.

All from Invercargill except Karetai, they were plunged into the sea when a rogue wave struck off Saddle Point on the northern tip of Stewart Island at midnight on Wednesday.

While the wreck of the Easy Rider had been located on the sea floor, families of the missing still held out hope their loved ones would be found, police said.

"Until we can get some divers down there and make some confirmations we will obviously keep going," police said.

Hopes of finding the dead must be fading, as the expected survival time in the 13 degree waters has been put at just four to six hours, odds Reedy has already defied.

Seventeen lives have now been lost in the strait since 2006, 14 of them on muttonbirding expeditions - with six lives lost in 2006 when Kotuku sunk returning from a the muttonbird nesting grounds.

Two other bodies from Easy Rider were found earlier, hours after the sunken boat was located in 40 metres of water by Bishop Island.

Using an underwater camera, navy ship Resolution found the boat on its side on the ocean floor, but did not detect any bodies.

A cousin of Karetai feared the bodies had been lost.

"All the elder family members want is the bodies back. They're being realistic - they don't believe they will get them,'' she said.

The current in the strait was fast and the bodies could be anywhere, she said.

Reedy was found clinging to a barrel at 6pm yesterday, suffering from hypothermia. He was able to pull himself up on to the hull where he stayed for about two hours before the boat sank, police said.

He told police he was one of three on the deck when Easy Rider was hit by a rogue wave, which caused it to capsize almost immediately. All the others were in the wheel house.

Rowdy Fisher had worked with Topi and Gilles, calling them both "teddy bears".

Topi had worked weekend nights on the door while she was a DJ at a local bar, and spent time with him and his flatmates outside of work.

"[Topi] was a real funny dude, always cracking jokes, just a big cuddly teddy bear. He was always asking about how you were. He was real good on the door, never got rough, but if someone was acting up he would just give them the time of day. He was always very professional with them."

Topi's flatmate Adam Swatton said he could not swim. He described his mate as a big solid guy with a heart of gold.
 
"He kept his friends close and his family closer," he said.

Police iwi liaison officers and a Victim Support team were supporting the families involved.

Bluff Community Board chairwoman Jan Mitchell said the community would do what they could for the families.

"The community is rallying together doing what we can," she said.

The tragedy brought back memories of the Kotuku, she said.

"We will be there for the families, whatever it takes. We'll be there and doing what we can. At the moment we are hoping, hoping we will have people come home. If it's different we will, as a community, deal with it at that point."

Uncanny links have bonded the Foveaux Strait tragedies of recent years.

Two months ago Easy Rider was involved in a rescue in the same waters, when an aluminium catamaran capsized off Ruapuke Island, and two lost their lives.

Karetai was hailed as a hero for that rescue.

And Topi's cousin Peter Topi died when the Kotuku sank after being struck by two rogue waves. Six died, and three people survived after swimming about 500m through heavy seas to Womens Island.

Barry Bethune, rescued by Mr Karetai in January, said it was hard to hold on to hope, knowing the conditions of the strait.

Easy Rider was heading north near Stewart Island when it capsized. The alarm was raised 14 hours later, when it failed to make a 2pm rendezvous at Stewart Island.

There was heavy rain and gale force winds in Foveaux Strait at the time of the capsize, and a four-metre swell.

- Fairfax Media

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