Coroner declares man likely to have drowned

By Lindy Laird

Tears mingled with smiles when Northland Coroner Brandt Shortland told Bernard Kuczera's family and friends that the adventurer's life could have been the subject of a reality television show.

He also told them what they had come to the Kaikohe Court to hear yesterday - that Mr Kuczera, 63, "most likely died by drowning" when he went missing on May 20, 2011.

The boatbuilder and experienced international sailor's body was never found despite an extensive air, sea and coast search after his rigid inflatable dinghy was found adrift off the Bay of Islands.

After yesterday's inquest, Mr Kuczera's son, Sylvan, said that although the ruling put legal closure to his father's disappearance, no one would ever know what had happened, or why Mr Kuczera had uncharacteristically taken his 3-metre dinghy out so far.

Nor, Mr Kuczera's former wife and two children had told the court, could they understand why the crew of the yacht Happy Spirit II, who found the empty dinghy at dusk that evening, did not realise it was the same small craft they saw splashing through choppy water earlier and deduce its occupant might have fallen overboard.

Had the link been made, there was a chance that a search might have started sooner.

Mr Kuczera, who grew up in Poland, and wife Nadine Autet sailed the world before settling in the Bay of Islands with their children Sofia and Sylvan.

When the couple separated, he continued to build, sell and live aboard boats; at the time of his death he was completing the 80ft Sylfia.

People described him as resourceful, a champion swimmer in his youth, a problem solver, friendly, stubborn, "nutty funny", restless at times but not reckless, and at the time of his death a little "low" after a long time-healing Achilles tendon injury, and at a crossroads, where he was considering giving up fulltime life on the sea.

In his ruling, the coroner said of Mr Kuczera's disappearance and unexplained outing in the dinghy: "I feel strongly this is not a suicide. I want to be very clear that is not the situation here."

Mr Shortland said the deceased had been "an amazing man, a master mariner, a master boatbuilder, a good father, a kind and generous friend, conscientious," and had taken his family on an amazing adventure sailing the world.

Bernard Kuczera also "had an ability to survive in extraordinary circumstances," Mr Shortland said, referring to a time when Mr Kuczera was marooned on a remote North African coast for a month before being rescued.

Mr Shortland accepted that the crew of Happy Spirit II that found Mr Kuczera's dinghy had taken a risk towing it, considering Customs Department requirements not to make contact with other boats when entering New Zealand. The crew did not connect it with an earlier sighting they had made of a man in a dinghy.

No one knew it was Mr Kuczera's dinghy or that he was missing. Had they known, a search could have started earlier "but may not have changed the outcome".

- Northern Advocate

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