Editorial: A better boat sorely needed

Is there a stretch of water anywhere in New Zealand more in need of a fit-for-purpose coastguard vessel than Foveaux Strait?

No community in recent years has dealt with more anguish from sea deaths than Bluff. Respected men on entirely seaworthy vessels have at times succumbed to the wildness of that water.

In the most recent inquest into the capsize of the Extreme, claiming the lives of Shaun David Bethune and Lindsay James Cullen off Ruapuke Island, Otago-Southland coroner David Crerar heard evidence that the boat was seaworthy and suitable for the conditions.

All on board were wearing lifejackets.

But they died anyway. A huge wave capsized the 7.25-metre craft.

Freak waves previously led to the loss of the fishing vessel Kotuku in 2006, when six people died.

And to the death of Neville Pascoe off Dog Island in 2010.

That Foveaux Strait is a challenging maritime environment has long been proven. What has been changing is that more people are venturing out, putting themselves at potential risk.

Increasing numbers are taking to the sea in recreational craft. The aluminium trailer-boat industry here has meant that it's no big deal for owners of these craft to shoot out for an afternoon's fishing.

Typically, they stand to have a fine time. But when the tide turns against the wind, calm, welcoming conditions disappear entirely.

When emergencies arise, the willingness of the entire coastal community to swing into action has been proven time and again. In the case of the Easy Rider tragedy the phrase "total community response" was legitimately used.

And yes it was the coastguard boat, NZAS Rescue, that saved the life of sole survivor Dallas Reedy. But, says coastguard president Andy Johnson, it was a close-run thing. He was estimated to be 30 minutes from death.

Quite simply, the area for which the Bluff coastguard is responsible is sometimes out of its operational reach. Its craft lacks the range and capacity to serve the strait and the seas around Stewart Island as well as it needs to.

Several of the coastguard's trained members have made the tough but rational call that they won't go on search and rescue missions in the strait when it is rough, because the craft is simply too small.

It comes as welcome news that the coastguard has finalised designs of a 13m jet-powered "dreamboat" vessel and is getting costings from boat builders, after which it will be approaching fundraisers.

Bluff is far from the only coastguard facing issues like this. Coastguard New Zealand's vessel standardisation project across the country is under way.

But Bluff's case is particularly compelling. When the appeal goes out, it deserves the close attention of potential supporters large and small.

It is easy to understand why the "dreamboat" has been called that. But there's nothing fanciful about the need. One way or another, more people are going to wind up in that frigid water, sometimes in circumstances that we can't do much about. Whether we resource our coastguard to reach them as quickly and safely as humanly possible - that's something we can can control. It really just comes down to willingness.

The Southland Times