Sinking survivor speaks of ordeal

By Jarrod Booker, APNZ, ODT staff, Herald Online

Foveaux Strait tragedy survivor Dallas Reedy recovering at Southland Hospital, Invercargill. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Foveaux Strait tragedy survivor Dallas Reedy recovering at Southland Hospital, Invercargill. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A deckhand who survived for 18 hours in Foveaux Strait after the fishing vessel he was on was struck by a freak wave says he had almost given up and was "ready to cross over" when the rescue finally came.

Dallas Reedy, 44, was the only known survivor after the vessel Easy Rider capsized late on Wednesday night with nine people aboard.

Mr Reedy today recounted how he was washed off the vessel when the wave hit and climbed onto the boat, which had flipped over.

He said he had tapped on the hull of the upturned vessel while he clung on but could hear nothing below and did not see any bodies. However he later learned that a body was recovered from close to where he was.

Flung into the water when the boat went down after two hours, Mr Reedy then grabbed a petrol can from the vessel that had popped up, and emptied it out. He used it as a floatation device for the next 16 hours. He has named the petrol can "Wilson" in the tradition of the Tom Hanks film Castaway.

"I sang to him. I talked to him. I just did everything I could to stay alive," he said.

Mr Reedy said he could not afford to think about anyone else on the vessel while he was trying to survive.

"I just thought about myself."

Mr Reedy was a schoolmate of Robert Hewitt, who survived at sea for four days and three nights in 2006.

He said he had to call on all of his army and diving experience to last in the freezing water, but towards the end of his ordeal he could see himself slipping away.

"I was ready to cross over, and that's made me a lot more relaxed. I talked to myself and to Wilson."

Mr Reedy said he was determined to survive, and to be there for his two sons' 16th and 18th birthdays coming up, and to see his wife again.

"We have just had our 20th wedding anniversary, and I wanted a few more."

But Mr Reedy said he still was making peace with people he knew in the last hours of his ordeal.

"I wasn't scared. I thought 'oh well, I am about to find out what's on the other side'."

"Towards the end, last night, at 6pm, I didn't have anything left in me. I was ready to go and I heard the [rescue] boat coming.

A young man standing on the back of the rescue boat had spotted him.

"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here. I couldn't have lasted another night."

"I said to someone else when they pulled me out of the water, it was like coming out of the womb, being reborn."

Mr Reedy's hope now is that the bodies of the others onboard can be recovered and returned to their families.

In an emotional encounter, he met with the families this afternoon and answered questions they had.

Mr Reedy is still recovering from his various injuries at Southland Hospital. His eyes are still reddened from the petrol he tipped out of the can, and from the sun. His tongue is swollen up to the roof of his mouth.

Fourth body found

A fourth body has been found by searchers following the capsize of the fishing vessel Easy Rider in Foveaux Strait.

The body of an adult male was found in the search area about 3pm and was being taken back to Invercargill, police said.

The bodies of two men were found earlier today and had already been taken to Invercargill.

The wreckage of the Easy Rider was found this afternoon about 2km off the coast of the northwestern tip of Stewart Island, near the Bishop and Clerks Islands.

A camera with a depth range from 30m, from a civilian search vessel, had taken photos of the vessel and the images matched the description of the Easy Rider.

A search and rescue operation continued today, comprising 12 vessels conducting a sea grid search and a ground search party on the shore closest to where the wreckage was found.

About 60 people and the navy, Coastguard and private commercial vessels had helped police in the search.

The search would continue into this evening.

Police and navy dive squad were on their way from Wellington and were expected to arrive in Invercargill this evening with equipment for a deep sea dive.

Police would assess their next steps once the squads arrived and discuss how the search would proceed tomorrow.

They have been working closely with the families of those who were on the Easy Rider through iwi liaison officers and Victim Support.

Police and the search and rescue team extended their deepest sympathies to the families.

Names released

Earlier today, police released the names of all nine people on the Easy Rider when it left Bluff Harbour bound for the Muttonbird Islands about 8pm on Wednesday.

They were: Shane Ronald Topi, 29, of Invercargill; skipper William "Rewai'' Desmond Karetai, 47, of Bluff; Paul Jason Fowler-Karetai, 40, of Invercargill; Odin Karetai, seven, of Invercargill; Boe Taikawa Gillies, 28, of Invercargill; John Henry Karetai, 58, of Invercargill; Peter Glen Pekamu-Bloxham, 53 of Invercargill; and David George Fowler, 50, of Invercargill.

Three bodies have been recovered but only one, that of Mr Topi, has been identified.

The search for the remaining five people continues but the Bluff community say they are being realistic; it is unlikely anyone will be found alive after so long in the water.

Rewai Karetai's aunt, Jill Karetai, said he was a capable, caring man.

"He's like a fish in water - his life was at sea."

Whanau had gathered at Bluff Harbour to wave the group off on Wednesday night in conditions described as calm by police but "very unpleasant'' by local man Alan Mitchell.

Another local, former oyster fisherman Christian Fife, said Easy Rider was overloaded when the boat left port.

"This is going to be a s*** storm,'' Mr Fife said.

"She [Easy Rider] was full of gear. She was overloaded ... the arse was in the water at the port.''

Whatever the weather was when Easy Rider left Bluff Harbour, it soon hit trouble, with a southwesterly change ripping through Foveaux Strait and bringing waves of up to 6m.

The MetService said the infamous stretch of water would have been "moderate to rough'' when the boat capsized just before midnight.

Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt said the tight-knit community of Bluff, population 1900, was in mourning following yet another boating tragedy; the Kotuku capsized near Stewart Island in 2006, with the loss of six lives. In January two people died when another boat capsized on the same stretch of water. Rewai Karetai saved three people in that accident.

Mr Shadbolt said the small community had been struck by so many tragedies in such a short time.

"It's just overwhelmed by a sense of tragedy because it's been so many in such a short time. It's just a feeling of how much more of this can we take," Mr Shadbolt said.

The community was now thinking about what it could do to prevent another tragedy.

"I'll be raising it at the next meeting, how can we improve telecommunication so that as soon as a ship does roll over it sets off some alarms within the system, perhaps we should have one big boat which patrols the islands.''

Everyone was related and knew everyone in the community, "and that's what I think heightens the tragedy", Mr Shadbolt said.

The boat itself has a chequered history, sinking at least once at its berth in Westport.

About 15 years ago a previous owner was Barrytown man Damien Briggs. After at least a year of neglect in Westport, it sunk at its berth.

Mr Briggs said it was a "quite a good little boat'', which he used for trawling. He owned three boats at the time, and sold Easy Rider when it became surplus to requirements.

Westport harbourmaster Nico Weeda said the boat sank again about two years ago after slowly taking on water while berthed at the wharf.

"She was moored off here for a considerable time, just left here. The person who was on board had just left her. We couldn't find the rightful owner.''

In 2008, when the boat was left at Westport, the Greymouth Star reported that the last known owners were Dunedin men Michael Ashton and Te Iwi Taiaroa.

Greymouth fisherman Doug Whyte knew Easy Rider captain Rewai (Spud) Karetai, who regularly fished out of Greymouth during the tuna season up until about 10 years ago.

"He was a good guy, a good fisherman, he worked hard.''

Mr Whyte last saw Easy Rider about 14 months ago, in Milford Sound.

Mr Karetai's late brother, Barry, lived at Notown.

- APNZ

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