A flashing emergency beacon found by navy divers in the sunken wreckage of the Easy Rider in Foveaux Strait was one of several tragic failings of safety equipment that may have contributed to the deaths of eight people.
An inquest in Invercargill yesterday confirmed the deaths by drowning of Shane Ronald Topi, 29, Boe Taikawa Gillies, 28, John Henry Karetai, 58, and Peter Glen Pekamu-Bloxham, 53, whose bodies were recovered, and of skipper William Rewai Desmond Karetai, 47, Paul Jason Fowler-Karetai, 40, David George Fowler, 50, and Odin Nirvana Karetai, 7, whose bodies were never found.
The Easy Rider sank near Stewart Island on March 15.
As well as the emergency beacon, which could not send signals underwater, a liferaft was wedged on the port side of the vessel, the hydrostatic release having not been activated.
The four bodies were found without lifejackets and a container with five flares was washed up on a beach at Ruapeke Island.
Chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean said had the emergency beacon been able to be released and start transmitting immediately when it came to the surface, it could well have shortened the search response time, which was "impressively quick considering the circumstances".
"Bearing in mind the very narrow window of survivability and the fact that Mr Reedy survived extraordinarily for about 19 hours, the question must always remain had the authorities in the local community been aware of the sinking earlier, that some other lives may have been saved," he said.
The Easy Rider sank on its way from Bluff to Big South Cape Island to drop off passengers for mutton birding. On board were nine people, mutton-birding provisions, several blue cod pots, and over a tonne of ice and bait in the freezer hold.
At about midnight the Easy Rider was hit by a large wave and "completely flipped", the only survivor, Dallas Tumoana Reedy, 44, said.
A search and rescue operation was deployed only after the Easy Rider failed to rendezvous with Southland Lakes Helicopter at 2pm the following day.
Mr Reedy clung to the overturned boat's hull for several hours, then managed to use a 20-litre petrol container for buoyancy before being rescued about 6.10pm. Hours later the first body was recovered and three other bodies were found on March 16.
Judge MacLean said all eight people "clearly perished at or about the same time".
He said that because other inquiries were under way, it was not appropriate yet to say whether there were lessons to be learned.
However, he commended the "amazing, total community response" in what was one of the largest search operations completed in recent years. It involved more than 7000 man hours, 40 hours' flying time, 12 commercial fishing vessels and two coastguard vessels.
- Otago Daily Times