Coastguard defends response to drowning tragedy

By Laura Mills, Viv Logie of the Greymouth Star

The Lady Anna had drifted about 25 metres up the Grey River. Photo / Greymouth Star
The Lady Anna had drifted about 25 metres up the Grey River. Photo / Greymouth Star

The Greymouth Coastguard took about 45 minutes to get to the wreck of the Lady Anna yesterday morning; after skipper Nicholas Eklund had been pulled from the water and pronounced dead.

The Coastguard boat the Ivan Talley is based in the Blaketown Lagoon, a short distance from the Grey River mouth where the tragedy occurred.

The emergency call was made at 7.35am by Cobden man Bob McAuliffe, who was taking photographs at the Blaketown tiphead and watched the tragedy unfold. He said he called 111 as soon as he saw a large wave roll the boat on to its side, tipping out the three fishermen.

The two crew; a 27-year-old Greymouth man and a 47-year-old Christchurch man; made it ashore after a short time in the water after being thrown lifebuoys by bystanders.

Tragically, Mr Eklund came within arm's reach of the bottom rocks at the Cobden tiphead, but the lifebuoys and lifejacket thrown toward him were swept away, and he was caught in the surging water and drowned.

He was eventually dragged from the sea by local surfboarder Steve Newby.

Police were dispatched to both the Blaketown and Cobden tipheads within five minutes of the emergency call, but the Coastguard did not appear until about 8.20am.

Greymouth Coastguard chairman Franco Horridge said his volunteers swung into action as soon as they received the page from the police, but he could not confirm this morning what time that was, or when the Ivan Talley reached the wreck.

However, two Greymouth Star reporters; one at the Blaketown tiphead and the other at the Cobden tiphead; confirmed that the Ivan Talley did not arrive until about 8.20am, when it was too late. The reporters were among other bystanders who watched helplessly as Mr Eklund drowned.

Mr Horridge said he doubted it took almost an hour to reach the river mouth, but he stressed that they were not able to "just jump on the boat and go''.

"We have procedures to follow.''

The Coastguard relied on volunteers, some of whom would have been on their way to work at the time, while others had family commitments.

"So it is not a matter of jumping in the car and racing down to the boat shed. We have procedures to follow to make our boat safe before we go on any rescue mission.

"We also have to assess any other risks, including how safe it is to cross the bar.''

However, he confirmed today that crossing the bar was not a question yesterday; ``we would have, had we been needed to.''

He said that when the Ivan Talley arrived at the site the volunteers were told the three people on board had been recovered, and then waited around for confirmation that there were no other people missing.

He was adamant that the Coastguard crew did everything required of them.

"We cannot go straight out looking, we need to know what we are looking for, what the situation at the bar is; there are procedures and we have to follow them. We are in danger too.''

Mr Horridge said he could not comment on whether the outcome would have been different had the rescue boat made it to the scene more quickly.

"That is impossible to answer; we did everything possible.''

WARNING LIGHT NOT ACTIVATED

The blue warning light at the Port of Greymouth entrance was turned off yesterday when the Lady Anna rolled while crossing the bar.

However, the Grey District Council, which runs the port, says the light is "only a guideline'' and staff cannot check sea conditions 24 hours a day.

If the light is on, fishermen out at sea know it may not be safe to enter the river mouth.

Port staff check the bar each night and turn the light on if needed. It is checked again at the start of the next working day.

But with the port in debt and the Greymouth fishing fleet substantially reduced, harbour staff numbers have been whittled down to just two, with no harbourmaster or port manager.

Council chief executive Paul Pretorius said today that even if the port did still have a harbourmaster, they would probably have been having breakfast at the time the Lady Anna attempted the bar, about 7.35am yesterday.

The wind was from the east, which traditionally levelled off the sand bar.

Mr Pretorius said the blue light was an information mechanism only, and when it was turned off it should not be taken as a `green' light to enter the port.

"The staff member did two checks the previous night,'' he said.

"The problem is, vessels come and leave any time of the night.

"We are only monitoring during working hours.''

Experienced fishermen told the Greymouth Star this morning the blue light was a guide, but not something they generally relied on.

Frank Benzie said that normally if it was on, fishermen then contacted someone on shore with experience to go and check the condition of the bar.

Sometimes it was turned on at night-time and still blue in the morning, when the sea had calmed down.

Fishermen knew it was checked at set times, and that it was not completely reliable. "It's a guideline, you don't accept it as hard and fast.''

Another fisherman, who declined to be named, said the sea could cut up in a matter of hours.

"They (port staff) can't be down there 24 hours a day.''

'UNFORGIVING' GREY BAR

The Lady Anna became the 45th boat to be wrecked off the Greymouth bar, and the skipper's death yesterday brought the drowning toll to 17.

The last fatality was the Koromiko in 2000, when a "wave just picked the arse of the boat and tipped it on its side'', eyewitness Barry Bryan said at the time. Two visiting fishermen died.

In April 2009, the Venture ran aground on the Blaketown beach, but this time the three crew jumped as it hit the shore and survived.

The first recorded shipwreck was the Gipsy in 1863, which was run on to the beach. All passengers disembarked safely.

Mayor Tony Kokshoorn, who has compiled Greymouth's shipwreck history, said the sad reality was that more lives would be lost on the Grey River.

"It's an unforgiving bar. It's extremely sad this happens (but) it's the nature of the West Coast.

"They are predominantly smaller fishing boats. And always the same pattern; too high a swell.''

A total of 231 lives have been lost in, en route, or from West Coast ports over the years. The worst was in 1872, when the Magnet sank on the way from Melbourne to Greymouth. Eight children were among the dead.

Only last week, Greymouth-based boat the Honey Dew sank north of Haast at Ships Creek, itself named after an early shipwreck.

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