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Yacht saga leaves pair sunk and skint

By Carolyne Meng-Yee

Nine months after Anniversary Day collision, couple still waiting for action from insurance company of the owner of the vessel that ran them down.

John Pryor with Jill Hetherington,who was seriously injured in the boating accident on Anniversary Day this year that sank their yacht Gypsy. It is still undergoing repair. Photo / Brett Phibbs
John Pryor with Jill Hetherington,who was seriously injured in the boating accident on Anniversary Day this year that sank their yacht Gypsy. It is still undergoing repair. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The skipper of a classic sailboat that split in half and sank in seconds is taking legal action against the yachtsman responsible for the collision, which caused life-threatening injuries to his partner.

Almost 10 months after the incident on the Waitemata Harbour, real estate agent John Pryor is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and has yet to hear from businessman Charles St Clair Brown's insurance company.

He believes the former lawyer has been let off with a slap on the wrist - in the form of a $200 harbourmaster fine - with Maritime NZ and police not involved in the case.

In January, Mr St Clair Brown was motoring back to Westhaven in his 18m yacht Antaeus when it collided with Mr Pryor's 10.4m boat Gypsy during the Anniversary Day Regatta. Mr Pryor, 65, managed to jump clear but his partner, Jill Hetherington, was knocked into the water and dragged under Antaeus' bow.

The 60-year-old suffered a fractured pelvis, nerve damage and deep bruising and is still undergoing rehabilitation.

Mr St Clair Brown visited the couple in hospital with dry clothes, $30 and toothbrushes but when they contacted him via email soon after, asking what he could do to help financially, he said it was in the hands of his insurance company.

They estimate the accident caused about $350,000 damage to the boat, which Mr Pryor bought five years ago for $40,000. He has spent more than $100,000 renovating it.

He told the Herald he was working with maritime lawyer Matthew Flynn and had made a claim against Mr St Clair Brown's insurance company, Clipper Club Marine, for the cost of the repairs and other expenses - about $400,000.

"So far that has got nowhere," Mr Pryor said.

"There is also no price to pay for what Jill has to endure.

"It was worse than being refugees. We had lost pretty much everything - house keys, car keys, licence ... Can you imagine having to replace all your credit cards? And also people trying to ring you while your phone is in the bottom of the harbour. So Charles' initial reaction was helpful but it went downhill from there."

Insurance assessor Christopher Laird said he had no comment as the case was "in the hands of solicitors now".

When contacted by the Herald, Mr St Clair Brown said: "Until this matter has been dealt with by the lawyers for the insurance companies I am unable to make any comments."

Asked if he thought $200 was a fair punishment, he said it was "inappropriate to be asking me those sorts of questions".

He said he was unable to talk.

Mr St Clair Brown is well known in New Zealand yachting. He is the son of the late Don St Clair Brown - one of the great benefactors of yachting in this country who, with wife Mary, helped competitors from P- class through to the Olympics and offshore keelboats.

The fine is the largest the harbourmaster, Andrew Hayton, can give under Auckland Council bylaws. Mr Hayton said Charles St Clair Brown was found to be in breach of maritime rules over collision prevention.

Maritime NZ said it could charge only commercial vessels under the Maritime Transport Act , or the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

The maximum penalty for operating a vessel in a manner likely to cause danger is a fine of $10,000 or 12 months in prison.

A spokesman for the agency said it investigated the incident and its findings were consistent with the harbourmaster's office.

"Maritime New Zealand has no comment on whether this penalty is fair," he said.

Mr St Clair Brown was not breath- tested after the incident but there is no requirement for any agency, including police, to do so following a collision on the water, unlike car crashes.

There was no evidence to suggest alcohol was involved, Maritime NZ said.

Martin Paget, officer in charge of the police maritime unit, said the National Pleasure Boat Safety Forum, which comprises representatives of the recreational and commercial maritime industry, had agreed that breath-testing after a boating incident should be explored.

He said police were not required to investigate the Anniversary Day incident.

"We would only investigate if it was directly referred to us or if we attended the incident," he said.

"That incident wasn't attended by police. Coastguard and medics and volunteers were there.

"The matter was referred to the harbourmaster and also Maritime NZ. It is up to them to determine what investigation occurs and what action they will take."

Mr Paget said accidents on the water differed from road accidents as there was often a proportion of blame applied to both parties.

"Operating a boat in busy waters is like a game of chess.

"You can't be one move ahead, you have to be multiple moves ahead because the moment you change course you may avoid getting into a risk of collision with one vessel but probably could generate a risk of collision with another vessel.

"So you have to keep your wits about you and if they can't do that they should stay at home, at anchor, at the marina or give up boating.

"A lot of people have the inability to imagine the worst that can happen and how quickly it can happen and they are never prepared for it."

Mr Pryor said the current laws were unfair. "What if I had hit someone on the road and injured or killed them - would I not be charged by the police?

"I was astonished and angry at Maritime NZ's decision not to prosecute.

"Jill could have died. Well, we both could have died.

"There are two injustices here - one is what [Mr St Clair Brown] did and got away with and the other is Maritime NZ not doing anything about it."

He also made an application under the Official Information Act to see paperwork from Maritime NZ and the harbourmaster investigations.

Mr Pryor has had to take time off from his job selling real estate on Kawau Island, off the coast of Snells Beach, about 65km north of Auckland, to look after Ms Hetherington.

They moved back to Sandspit on the mainland so she could keep up her medical appointments.

She was in hospital initially for nine days, but readmitted for another four days after contracting gastroenteritis as a result of the accident.

She is still unable to sit upright, which means flying is out of the question.

"I have nerve damage and scar tissue on my butt," she said.

"I can't sit upright and sit in effect on the back of my thighs. So it is literally a pain in the butt."

Another skipper in the regatta, Mark Sheplan, tried to warn Mr St Clair Brown by yelling that Gypsy was in front of him.

He described the $200 fine as a joke. "I was horrified he was hit with a wet bus ticket when I can park my car in the wrong place and I get hit for eighty bucks.

"John has lost his boat ... Jill has a severe pelvis injury. It is not right. Look, if a boat has sunk and a life has been endangered it should always be investigated.

"Some people may have criticised Gypsy, saying she was fragile. Well, of course she is. She is 72 years old. But she is seaworthy. I mean, she is not a steel-reinforced boat, absolutely not, so of course she is brittle."

Gypsy is now being restored in a factory at Snells Beach.

The couple have set up a charitable trust which is overseeing the rebuild and are offering the public the chance to become "Gypsy nail holders".

For $100, holders will own one of the 5000 copper nails that keep the boat together, and among other perks, be invited to the relaunch party next year.

The public can become nail holders by visiting gypsy.org.nz

The numbers

* 1939 - Year John Pryor's classic sailboat was built
* 10.4m - Size of the boat
* 18.3m - Size of Antaeus, millionaire Charles St Clair Brown's yacht
* $200 - The fine the harbourmaster imposed on St Clair Brown
* $350,000 - Estimated cost of repair$35,000 Additional costs for medical bills and time off work
* $40,000 - What John Pryor paid for his boat
* $100,000 - How much he spent on renovations
* 2-3 - knots Speed Gypsy was travelling under sail before collision
* 5-10 - knots Speed Antaeus was travelling under motor.

- NZ Herald

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