Easy Rider tragedy affords vital lessons

Last updated 15:47 15/03/2013

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The Easy Rider tragedy is as fresh in the minds of some people in the Southland community as the day it happened. Today, one year since the sinking, reporter Collette Devlin talks to members of the Titi Islands whanau and emergency services about the day Southland will never forget.

The Easy Rider tragedy stole eight lives from one extended family of cousins one year ago today and the emotions remain raw for many.

"It will never be goodbye, we are learning to walk beside our grief rather than get past it," says Easy Rider skipper Rewai Karetai's wife, Gloria Karetai, nee Davis.

The past few days have been precious as they remember their loved ones, but also difficult, she says.

She is grateful for the support she and the rest of the family received from the community throughout the year.

Nine people were on board the Easy Rider when it was struck by a rogue wave just after midnight on March 15, 2012, off Saddle Point on the northern tip of Stewart Island.

The 11.6-metre fishing boat was travelling towards the Titi Islands, where preparations for the annual muttonbirding season were about to start.

Only one of the nine people on the boat, Dallas Reedy, 44, was found alive, clinging to a plastic petrol can 18 hours after the boat sank.

Four bodies were recovered: Shane Topi, 29, Boe Pikia- Gillies, 28, John Karetai, 58, and Peter Pekamu-Bloxham, 53.

The boat's skipper, Rewai Karetai, 47, Paul Fowler-Karetai, 40, David Fowler, 50, and Odin Karetai, 7, were never found.

Yesterday, an emotional Rua Holland, sister of Easy Rider skipper Rewai Karetai, was preparing to grieve finally for her brother and her cousins.

"As cousins we were like one family . . . we lost eight of a family, not just one person".

It has been a raw year for all the families involved and a lot has happened but it still feels like yesterday, she says.

Although some of her cousins have been returned from the treacherous Foveaux Strait, it is hard that others are still out there with her brother, she says.

A memorial in Dunedin tomorrow will be the first time Rewai's siblings have a chance to grieve and share their feelings together, she says.

The family appreciate everything that has been done for them, she says.

Melissa Otene, David Fowler's partner says it is hard not having him back to say a proper goodbye.

The memorial last night was the last part of the process to celebrate and remember those who lost their lives.

Invercargill police iwi liaison officer, Constable Simon Kairau, will be on hand today to provide ongoing support to the family as he did last year.

It is an emotional time for Mr Kairau and the family-liaison team, who a year ago provided updates to the family as they anxiously awaited news.

"It was emotional breaking the news to traumatic family members and everyone still feels it in their hearts," he says.

The families still feel the loss, which will take a long time to heal, he says.

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"Being a member of a local tribe you feel part of this whanau, it touched an extra note inside me . . . I made decisions from the heart and used my training."

Bluff Coastguard president Andy Johnson was involved with the Easy Rider search and rescue, which is still very much on his mind.

The tragedy affected his small unit and he knew two of the victims.

The unit has since built stronger ties with the fishing community and, as a result, the members have improved by refining and reviewing what is done.

"It's times like this you pull together . . . It has made us stronger and more robust at what we do," he says.

He is a muttonbirder and has noticed operators have become more aware and proactive on the safety stance.

Southland area commander, Inspector Lane Todd, says the Easy Rider operation took its toll on police and rescue staff.

He thanks the Southland community for its support, which helped emergency staff do their job effectively.

The Easy Rider tragedy followed the 2006 Kotuku disaster in Foveaux Strait, where six people died when the 15m boat capsized. It was returning after the annual muttonbird hunt on the Titi Islands.

The key message police want to get out to all boaties as they prepare for the start of the muttonbirding season this year is to remember that the Foveaux Strait changes quickly - don't take it for granted.

Safety equipment is paramount and Todd strongly encourages skippers take a course organised by the coastguard.

"Ensure every vessel is safe and skippers should regularly log on with the Bluff fishermen's radio and be aware of the weather conditions," he says.

Kaumatua Michael Skerrett is preparing to go muttonbirding this season and says everyone has remembered the Titi whanau who will be missing this year.

The Easy Rider has created awareness for the need to be careful, he says.

The community is aware of overloading and is taking precautions to be as safe as possible after a meeting with Maritime New Zealand.

"We travel over some of the roughest waters in the world and sometimes things can happen and we need to be prepared," he says.

Maritime New Zealand held a partnership exercise with the Titi whanau last month.

Maritime NZ media and communications Adviser Michael Flyger says a series of discussions were well attended and well received.

They were held to remind boaties about load limits and the need to ensure people had the right safety equipment on board.

Weather forecasting, having two or more forms of communication and a distress beacon on board and talking to the shore and other boats was discussed with skippers.

"These people are well aware they are leaving people behind on the shore who don't want anything bad to happen, so safety is important," he says.

The Rakiura Island Titi Committee member Ronnie Bull says the Easy Rider has a bearing on the 2013 bird season and people have taken away lessons.

He travelled on the same night as the Easy Rider but did not know the vessel was there.

Keeping in touch with each other and letting people know when you are going are the key points from the muttonbirders meeting, he says.

Although overloading has not been identified as a cause of the tragedy, it was still discussed at length, he says.

Meanwhile, investigations into the cause of the tragedy are continuing.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission is almost finished its investigation to ascertain the circumstances and causes of the sinking, with a view to preventing similar incidents.

Chief Investigator Tim Burfoot says a draft report has been sent for comment to people involved with the investigation.

Submissions have been received and the commission is working through them and he expects it will be published within the next month.

The grieving Gloria Karetai, wife of Easy Rider skipper Rewai Karetai, faces charges relating to the tragedy in Foveaux Strait.

She has been charged with three offences under the Health and Safety in Employment Act and two under the Maritime Transport Act. She has pleaded not guilty.

Among the charges she faces is that, as director of AZ1 Enterprises Ltd, she acquiesced or participated in the failure of the company to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employees while at work on the Easy Rider.

AZ1 Enterprises Ltd faces similar charges.

The case has been remanded to March 28, when a hearing date will be set.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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