Tragic battle to save sailing companion

Jo Ivory thought Charlie Gallagher would survive their ordeal at sea, and was shocked when she was told he had died.
Jo Ivory thought Charlie Gallagher would survive their ordeal at sea, and was shocked when she was told he had died.

A tragedy on the high sea can happen very quickly, as experienced sailor Jo Ivory found when her friend Charlie Gallagher was washed overboard. It highlights the need to be prepared for any situation

A Blenheim woman struggled for more than 40 minutes to get her sailing companion back on his yacht but still couldn't save him.

Jo Ivory dropped the sails in rough weather, started the motor and managed to keep sailing buddy Charlie Gallagher in sight.

HIGH SEAS: Charles Gallagher's yacht, Mrs Jones, pictured in 2007.
HIGH SEAS: Charles Gallagher's yacht, Mrs Jones, pictured in 2007.

She turned the boat in high seas off the notorious Cape Jackson and managed to get a line to him.

She encouraged him and tried to help him back on board, but none of it worked.

He died in the rescue helicopter on the way to Wellington Hospital.

Gallagher wasn't wearing a lifejacket that day.

Ivory is an advocate for lifejackets, takes the safety precautions necessary, but says in this case it wouldn't have saved him.

Looking back, the one thing they needed was a ladder on the back of his beloved 11-metre racing yacht Mrs Jones.

Ivory says she was convinced the helicopter have arrived in time to save him; he was still alive when he was winched on to a helicopter.

So she was shocked when she learned her 52-year-old friend had died that day, September 21.

"It was a horrific thing," said Ivory, who has been sailing for more than 30 years. "It's the worst thing that can happen to any sailor."

The pair had planned on competing in the two-handed race round the North Island in February and had sailed together twice before they set off to deliver Mrs Jones from Nelson to Picton.

It was pouring rain and the wind was up as they approached Cape Jackson, at the northern entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound.

Gallagher had been resting in his bunk but emerged from the cabin and had just sat down in the cockpit when a wave slammed into the side and threw him into the water.

"I got a rope to him and got him back to the boat," Ivory said.

"I honestly thought it would be easy - I could help him and he could help himself."

She thought she had everything under control; it was taking all her experience, but they were OK.

Gallagher was exhausted, though. He could get his hand on the stanchion - the uprights around the deck that support a side rails - but he couldn't pull himself up the smooth, curved side of the yacht.

He refused to take off his wet-weather gear or his heavy sailing boots, Ivory said.

"I said ‘Drop your boots, drop some clothing so you can manoeuvre more', but he refused to," she said.

He was in the water more than 40 minutes when Ivory sent out a mayday call.

The Westpac Rescue Helicopter from Wellington arrived about 25 minutes later but the rough weather meant it was another 20 minutes before they managed to winch Gallagher on board.

"Even when the helicopter was coming we were talking together, and he was saying ‘How much longer Jo, I'm starting to fade'," she said.

"I said ‘The helicopter will be here any moment and you'll be warm soon, they'll warm you up, you'll be fine Charlie'," she said.

"I even said again ‘Take your boots off', and he said ‘No, my feet will get cold'."

Those were the last words he said to her.

He was still conscious as she let go of him and he was pulled away from the yacht so he could be hoisted up.

"And I believed he'd be fine."

But nearly two hours after the helicopter left, a Coastguard crew told Ivory he had died.

She has thought back over the tragedy many times. It all happened in less than two hours.

Ivory doesn't think a life jacket would have made a difference, but says Gallagher should still have been wearing one.

"I had mine on - we were going through a hairy situation," she said.

"But the lifejacket would have made it more bulky."

She is still not sure what caused his death. The initial autopsy report was inconclusive and it is still being investigated by the coroner.

"To me, he didn't drown. He would have died because of hypothermia, or his heart," she said.

"He was a strong bugger."

Gallagher was usually good about wearing a life jacket.

"It all just happened so fast".

Ivory did everything she could to save her friend, but says two things might have helped. There should have been a ladder on the boat and they should have talked about their strategy if someone did go overboard.

They would have gone through the scenario before the Round North Island race, but this was a short delivery trip, she said.

"I know we're very experienced, but we should've discussed it.

"We just think we're 10-foot tall and bulletproof," she said.

Marlborough harbourmaster Alex Van Wijngaarden said people should think about how to survive if they fell overboard.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was often obvious how lives could have been saved, he said.

The key was anticipating being in the water.

People should consider installing ladders, standard on boats used for water sports and large and commercial boats, he said.

Small rope ladders which could be thrown over the side were an option. Lifelines attaching people to boats relied on someone having the strength to pull them back on board, he said.

"If you are being dragged behind a boat, it is very hard to pull yourself back in and dragging someone over the side against a moving vessel would be very hard."

Four people who had drowned or gone missing in the Sounds since 2009 had not been wearing life jackets.

Van Wijngaarden said it was common to find life jackets that had been stored in a cubby-hole for years and were no longer effective.

"In boating shops now you can buy slim-fitting jackets for about $90. How much is a life worth?

"People might have been drinking alcohol and think they are 10-foot tall and bulletproof. Then they fall in the water and can't get themselves out," he said.

Other times sailors taking a dinghy to and from the shore at night had slipped, been knocked unconscious and drowned.

"Or they go over the side in the middle of the night when the ship is moving. No-one realises for half and hour and when they try to go back and find them, it's impossible," he said.


During the 20 years to December 2012:

■ 215 drownings were related to power boats

■ 105 (49 per cent) of these involved boats less than 4m

■ Of the 105, 83 per cent were not wearing a lifejacket

■ 95 per cent were male.

■ Source: Water Safety New Zealand


■ December 3, 2013: Kaikoura men Robin Reinke, 79, and Ronald Monk, 75, are found dead after their boat capsizes in Kaikoura. Their deaths have been referred to the coroner.

■ September 21, 2013: Charlie Gallagher, 52, dies after a wave sweeps him from his yacht in the outer Sounds.

■ September 3, 2013: Blenheim man Craig Partridge, 45, disappears after falling off a launch in Endeavour Inlet. He is not wearing a lifejacket. His body has not been found.

■ August 2011: Porirua man Gerald Rosson drowns after falling from a 7m boat in Queen Charlotte Sound after drinking. He is not wearing a lifejacket.

■ November 2009: Picton man Christopher Purdy, 56, drowns while rowing back to his dinghy after a night of drinking. He is not wearing a lifejacket.


The Marlborough Express