Search for missing swimmer called off

Last updated 00:00 12/08/2007
DAVID HALLETT/The Press
UPDATED REPORT: MISSING MAN: one of Christchurch's more eccentric residents has probably died in a bizarre incident. Graeme White was an altruistic volunteer who helped the mentally ill. He also had a string of convictions.

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The search for a Christchurch eccentric missing after attempting to swim across Lyttelton Harbour on Saturday afternoon.

Police said Graeme White, 46, walked and swam across mudflats to Quail Island to help with a tree planting project, but must have got himself into trouble when he tried to swim back to the mainland during high tide.

A small dinghy which White used for flotation and to carry his personal possessions was found washed ashore but there was no sign of him.

Christchurch police spokeswoman Maggie Leask said an aerial search and a search of the harbour and mudflats by the Coastguard today had failed to find White.

Inspector Warren Kemp, of the police southern communications centre, said today it was likely White had drowned and there was a good chance his body would be found in the next few days.

White was last seen leaving the island about 2.30pm on Saturday after a day spent planting trees with a conservation group.

He attempted to swim back to the mainland across a 400m channel using the small boat as a flotation device to hold his wallet, keys, and jacket.

The boat was found in Charteris Bay on Saturday with his possessions, but searches by the Coastguard, police, and conservation volunteers have failed to find any sign of him.

White was wearing "a string singlet, very, very short shorts and no shoes", a Coastguard search co-ordinator said.

White was a familiar face in Christchurch courts after several high-profile cases.

He served a jail term for tunnelling into an abortion clinic in 1999 and was fined for attacking a statue of double Victoria Cross awardee Charles Upham in Amberley with a metal-cutting disc.

He recently appealed against a conviction for indecently exposing himself to a woman while tending a goat.

At the time he was wearing a money pouch over his crotch, and a sack cloth. While defending that charge he gathered a further conviction when court staff saw his bare buttocks.

He has also been convicted for riding his bicycle wearing nothing but a helmet.

White had an altruistic side, however. In 2002, he became the second living person in New Zealand to donate a kidney to a stranger.

Professor John Morton, who co-ordinated the kidney donor programme, said the following year that White was a likeable and intelligent man who generously gave a part of himself to save another.

"I found him a fascinating individual," Morton said then.

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White's wife, Lynette, told The Press yesterday that her husband had been planting trees on Quail Island with the Otamahua Quail Island Ecological Restoration Trust for several weekends.

Volunteers were normally taken to the island on the Black Cat catamaran but White missed the boat because he was milking cows.

He drove to a point near the island and walked across mudflats to join the group while the tide was low. Returning to his car at high tide required the use of "plan B", she said.

White was seen to make it to King Billy Island, a small island between Quail and the mainland, but is thought not to have made it over the last stretch of water.

Sixteen coastguard staff on boats and jetskis, and many conservation volunteers, searched the harbour yesterday but could not find him.

Lynette White said White was a "deep thinker" and a man of deeply held convictions.

"He was pretty single-minded. Once he started something he wouldn't stop. He sticks up for what he believes in. I admire him for that."

White had worked with people with mental handicaps and had run a "half-way house" for several years, she said.

The Whites attended the Hillmorton Hospital Chapel, where Graeme did the music.

"I haven't had much sleep. Of course, I'll miss him but we just celebrated my birthday. If someone was going to die it was probably a good time. We've had a comparatively good week."

Coastguard search controller Jerry Steele said White's chances of survival were slim.

- The Press

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