Kiri Gillespie

Kiri is a digital journalist for bayofplentytimes.co.nz.

Sailor may have been drinking

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The last known moments in the life of a missing sailor who disappeared prompting a major air, land and sea search near Mayor Island last year have been revealed.

Northland skipper Richard Rusbatch is believed to have drowned at sea near the island and is thought to have been drinking when he fell overboard, unable to catch up to his moving yacht.

In a Coroner's Court report released yesterday, Coroner Wallace Bain said Mr Rusbatch went missing in February last year after travelling to Tauranga from Russell on a charter trip. His body has never been found.

The 56-year-old sailor arrived and spent the night in Tauranga on February 11 and a group of Russians, who had chartered the boat, left the following morning.

Mr Rusbatch, who had 25 years sailing experience, set out from Tauranga Harbour by himself that afternoon, telling a fellow boatie he was headed for Slipper Island.

Two days later, on Valentine's Day, Mr Rusbatch's yacht Honfleur was found about 11 nautical miles east of Mayor Island, moving in slow circles with its engine going and its anchor trailing.

The yacht's stereo was turned on and set on high volume but no one was aboard.

Mr Rusbatch's wallet and cellphone were on a bench and an unopened bottle of wine was in the sink.

Mr Bain said a police reconstruction had Mr Rusbatch mooring near Mayor Island on February 12 when he made a phone call to a friend in Wellington at 6.09pm.

The friend told the police Mr Rusbatch was moored about 300m off Mayor Island and he was watching seals swimming. Mr Rusbatch planned to leave for Great Barrier Island the next morning.

He thought Mr Rusbatch had been drinking from the way he sounded over the phone, Mr Bain said.

It is believed Mr Rusbatch attempted to moor elsewhere when weather conditions changed. The yacht's windlass winch was broken and the Honfleur was moving at a slow speed, with the anchor set at five metres in the water.

"That indicates he was seeking another place to anchor," Mr Bain said.

Mr Bain said it was likely Mr Rusbatch fell from the vessel and it would have been impossible for him to catch up.

"The police say he has either been too far off shore, become disoriented in the dark or suffered a medical event such as a heart attack," Mr Bain said.

"There is nothing to indicate anything had occurred on board the boat by way of injury."

Mr Bain found Mr Rusbatch died at sea on or about February 12, from presumed drowning and exposure.

- Northern Advocate

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