Lost at sea

By Jane Phare

The crew from the Rose-Noelle after 119 days at sea. From left: Phillip Hofman, Rick Hellriegel and Jim Nalepka. Photo / Supplied.
The crew from the Rose-Noelle after 119 days at sea. From left: Phillip Hofman, Rick Hellriegel and Jim Nalepka. Photo / Supplied.

It was the story of the year: four men — John Glennie, Rick Hellreigel, Jim Nalepka and Phil Hofman — back from the dead after surviving a shipwreck, storms and starvation.

When the four desperate survivors of the wreck of the 12.6m Rose-Noelle clawed their way up through steep Great Barrier bush to tell the world they were back, Media clamoured for the story. The TVNZ helicopter jostled for space on the tiny Great Barrier beach against a helicopter hired by the fledgling TV3. Paul Holmes nailed an exclusive with the Rose-Noelle's skipper John Glennie, and Penguin signed him up to write a book. The Rose-Noelle story was a ripper.

Three days into its voyage, at 6am on June 4, 1989, a massive wave — so big it roared like a freight train — came out of the darkness and flipped the 6.5 tonne trimaran upside down like a bath toy, trapping the four terrified men in the darkness, sea water pouring in through the open hatch.

From that moment what was an adventure trip to Tonga turned to a struggle for survival as they drifted, lost at sea, for 119 days.

The signal from the EPIRB locator beacon they set off was not picked up and on June 13, John's 48th birthday, it stopped working. The men were alone.

By all accounts, the wreck should have drifted towards South America, its occupants slowly starving to death. Any other year, with a different weather pattern, only skeletons would have remained.

Instead, the winds and currents pushed the stricken trimaran in a wide loop, eventually washing it up on a remote part of Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf. A miracle, those with faith proclaimed.

Maybe, maybe not, sceptical Customs and marine investigators thought at the time.

Captain Mel Bowen, then with the Maritime Transport Division of the Ministry of Transport, was asked to help investigate the men's claim.

He started his inquiries with a healthy doubt of suspicion.

"I was paid to doubt," he says.

As garbled reports of four men surviving for four months by clinging to the upturned hull of a trimaran, Bowen — an experienced seafarer — knew something wasn't right.

One of the men was clean shaven, the others had trimmed beards and hair. They were wearing clean clothes. And where were the salt sores, the scourge of anyone in constant contact with salt water?

They were thin, yes, but otherwise outwardly fit and healthy. No signs of scurvy.

If they had been drifting in the Pacific for four months, why hadn't they floated towards Chile, as expected?

Quietly watching the four men, Bowen thought they seemed vague, confused, unsure of details.

Bowen, now retired in Rotorua, smelled a rat. Customs smelled drugs.

The timeline was right. Four months to get to South America to collect drugs and back for a drop off at the Barrier.

Had a navigational error caused the Rose-Noelle to hit rocks and break up just as they were about to land? Bowen, never much of a desk-sitter, headed straight out to Great Barrier to visit the spot — Little Waterfall Bay — where the Rose-Noelle had slowly ground itself to pieces as the yacht hit an offshore reef.

His job was to find clues, evidence which would back up the men's garbled story. Bowen and the local Barrier policeman, Shane Godinet — who had collected the four survivors in his truck when news first came through — ran down through the bush to the tiny beach and climbed back up again, trying to find evidence of a spot where the men said they had camped in the bush for a night, sharing a can of food in the darkness.

Then he and Godinet began searching the shoreline and, donning dive gear, searched the site where the Rose-Noelle had ground itself to death.

This search helped convince Bowen that Glennie was not a drug runner; that the Rose-Noelle had been a beautifully built and well-equipped yacht which was Glennie's home. Up from the water came Glennie's bicycle and a chef-sized wok from the yacht's superb galley.

"In the event what we found was a jumble of household effects." Most telling was the yacht's topsides. Where unmarked paint should have been, instead barnacles grew — only possible if the yacht had been floating upside down for months. A few days later Barrier resident Dave Medland searched the wreck site and spotted something glinting in the water. It was four cycling medals, two belonging to Glennie and two his father had won.

Medland also found some American coins, the left-over change when Glennie and his brother sold their first trimaran, Highlight, in Los Angeles, after sailing around the Pacific in the 60s. And he found a drill which he took home, cleaned up and plugged in. After four months under water, the drill still worked.

It was after Glennie, Hellreigel, Nalepka and Hofman had been questioned closely, and separately, by investigators that some of the mystery was cleared up.

The men had lived in a small space inside the wreck, not on top of it. They had rigged up a water catchment system and, after the upturned yacht grew barnacles and became a floating reef, had started to catch fish using a gaff. Glennie had repeatedly dived into the submerged cabin, feeling his way around for the stocks of food he knew were there. Trays of unripe kiwifruit gradually ripened, and rationed out, gave them precious vitamin C.

After clambering ashore and spending a night in the bush, they had broken into a bach on the Barrier, where they had washed, shaved, trimmed their hair, changed into clothes they found in a wardrobe and cooked themselves a meal. And they had slept the night. The next day they heard a phone ringing in a nearby property.

Twenty years ago Great Barrier still had an old-fashioned party line. A nearby resident, Peter Speck, heard the phone ring and picked it up. His voice — and later his visit to the back on a farm bike — was the first outside human contact the men had had in four months.

Speck couldn't believe what he was seeing and hearing. Four men lost at sea for four months suddenly reappearing in his neighbour's bach.

More than three months earlier an Air Force Orion had spent two days searching an area between the Kermadec Islands and Tonga — miles from where the Rose-Noelle was drifting — based on what was thought to be a garbled message from the yacht giving its position. But faced with little information about the yacht's intended course, the search was abandoned.

With no signal from the EPIRB distress beacon, Search and Rescue officials concluded that something "catastrophic" had happened to the yacht.

In the New Zealand Water Safety Council's bulletin of Aug/Sept 1989, the four Rose-Noelle crew were listed as "drowned" in the vicinity of the Kermadec Islands.

Instead, they were huddled in a cramped space, wet and cold, with nothing to do but day-dream about food and fresh water.

Apart from Hellreigel and Nalepka, who knew each other from Anakiwa's Outward Bound, the four men were strangers, with little in common.

Twenty years later, the three remaining men — Hellreigel died of a brain tumour two years after coming ashore — are still estranged.

None of them have kept in touch, even after an event that inextricably bound them together.

Glennie moved to the United States, married and started a new life based firmly on land. Hofman and his wife Karen had their fifth child, Rose, sold their boat and moved from Picton to Waiheke Island. They later bought a trimaran and lived aboard before settling in Auckland's Mt Wellington.

The Herald on Sunday was unable to contact Nalepka but, after helping Hellreigel's wife Heather nurse Rick as his brain tumour progressed, he returned to the United States. He later came back to New Zealand, qualified as a nurse, worked at Nelson Hospital and married a New Zealander.

Former Great Barrier policeman Shane Godinet is semi-retired in the Far North's Henderson Bay, after leaving the Barrier for Houhora police station in the 90s. He still has scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings and photos from the Rose-Noelle and says the survival story is never far from his mind.

He has the Rose-Noelle's flag framed at home and intends to make a desk ornament using a couple of Glennie's American coins and a winch from the wreck.

Looking back, he says, the four men were lucky to survive even their arrival at Great Barrier. The tiny beach near Little Waterfall Bay, where the yacht hit rocks, was the only part of that coast that was not sheer rock. The men would have been unable to get out of the water, Godinet says.

"Another 50m either side where they hit the rock and they would have been dead. We would have just found wreckage."

- Herald on Sunday

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