Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Whatever happened to Kerry Blair?

Kerry Blair on board his boat. His family are still in the dark as to what happened to him. Photo / Supplied
Kerry Blair on board his boat. His family are still in the dark as to what happened to him. Photo / Supplied

Whatever happened to Kerry Blair? One lingering summer day in 2014, the experienced seaman took his boat from a remote bay in the Marlborough Sounds to get some dinner. The 9-metre craft was found drifting 200kms off Taranaki nine days later. Mr Blair was not on board. His body has never been found. There were four ways he could have died: suicide, accident, staged disappearance, or foul play. Almost two years later, his family want answers. Kurt Bayer with this exclusive report.

Kerry Blair often complained about his lot. His dream skipper job on a charter boat had lately become more of a monotonous maintenance role. He moaned about money.

But there were upsides. Working in the isolated picture-postcard bay accessed only by water, surrounded by native bush, he could take the boat out whenever he wanted.

Fishing for tuna, visiting mates, he was often his own boss.

On the morning of Saturday March 8, 2014, Mr Blair woke with "violent pain" in his back and kidneys, according to a co-worker, housemate, and close friend. He took paracetamol and didn't mention it again.

He bought a Lotto ticket online and checked the weather forecast.

The housemates lunched together at 2pm. It was a beautiful, calm day in what they both called paradise.

Mr Blair, in shorts and t-shirt, seemed his usual self. The man with 40 years' maritime experience felt like getting "greasy fish 'n' chips" for tea.

After lunch, his friend returned to painting inside the property's cottage.

At around 4pm, she heard the inboard diesel engine of the Senator boat idling. Soon afterwards, she heard it leave. Nobody saw Mr Blair go.

It struck her as "odd" that he didn't say goodbye but shrugged it off and returned to her painting.

But Mr Blair, who rarely wore a lifejacket, never came back. He'd never done that before.

She phoned his cellphone. Two calls - at 10.14pm and 10.16pm - were diverted to voicemail.

A minute later, an outgoing call from his cellphone dialled voicemail, "presumably to check his messages", according to Raymond Norton, a Spark NZ compliance manager who gave cellphone data evidence before Coroner Marcus Elliott last month [December].

That was the last time his phone was used, the inquest heard.

His cellphone polled off a tower at Golden Bay - in the wrong direction, and miles from where he said he'd be going.

Police officers later investigating the mysterious case would find a photograph taken on his cellphone at 7.35pm on the day he disappeared. It captures a setting sun glistening on the sea's western horizon, as well as the boat's side and rail.

That photo is not a selfie. Dad is not in the photo. That photo puts the phone on the boat. To me, that doesn't necessarily say Dad was on the boat.

(l-r) Kerry Blair with his three children, Rochelle, Dylan and Cherise. Photo / Supplied
(l-r) Kerry Blair with his three children, Rochelle, Dylan and Cherise. Photo / Supplied

For the family, however, the picture provokes more questions than answers.

"That photo is not a selfie," daughter Rochelle Foster said.

"Dad is not in the photo himself. That photo puts the phone on the boat. To me, that doesn't necessarily say Dad was on the boat."

Shortly after 11am the following day, the co-worker phoned police. She also alerted maritime radio, local resorts, friends, their boss, and Mr Blair's family. They all tried his cellphone, but there was no answer.

Police officers started digging. Was it out of character? Is there anything to suggest he's in trouble? Does he have means of communication on the boat?

Younger brother Peter Blair flew down from Tauranga, arriving Monday morning. He met local police and was appointed the family's point of contact.

By then, two days on, the family say they were pressing police to get a plane in the air. No searches had yet been done.

The family thought something was up. His disappearance was "definitely out of character", said his son Dylan, himself a former commercial fisherman.

"The first 48 hours is critical. The sea is a large place," he said.

Frustrated in the belief that police were spending more time investigating Mr Blair's background and character than the seas and inlets, the family funded their own aerial search.

They hired a plane to scan the area, and down the South Island's West Coast where he had spent years fishing out of Greymouth - even though in the eight years he'd lived in the Marlborough Sounds, he'd never taken that journey by sea. Mr Blair was extremely wary of the potentially perilous Cook Strait, especially in the smaller vessel.

The search went on. The family say they pushed police to get a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion surveillance aircraft involved.

As the days went by the family became increasingly frustrated with the police-led search operation, especially the communication.

"It was a nightmare trying to get information," Dylan said.

His Dad's disappearance didn't add up. He had appeared his normal self, had things to look forward to. Dylan suspected foul play.

"Someone else had to be involved in some description," he said.

But when he raised his suspicions, he felt police treated him "like it was a joke".

No sign of life

On March 14, six days after Mr Blair disappeared, an Orion finally took to the skies.

Within 40 minutes, the crew spotted the boat, 200km off the coast of Taranaki. There was no sign of life on board.

Attempts to secure it and bring it to shore were initially hindered by stormy weather and giant seas. On March 18 it was towed back to Port Taranaki.

Once the boat was found, and there was no trace of Mr Blair, his son Dylan believes that police then became "fixated" on a theory of suicide.

Rochelle felt the police attitude at first was, "He's done a runner", and then when the boat was found, "Dad's committed suicide, let's work back from that and prove he has".

Police deny many of the family's claims.

They say they approached the "enormous" missing persons operation with a practical clarity that emotional and distraught family members could not.

Police say there were no indications of foul play for them to investigate at the time, though they "kept an open mind".

During the inquest, which has adjourned until an as yet unspecified date later this year, family members speculated that three people, whose identity cannot be reported due to legal reasons, could have been involved in Kerry Blair's disappearance.

Missing shotgun

The possibility of foul play was not properly investigated at the time, Mr Blair's children say.

"I do understand that it is a pretty harsh accusation but it should've been investigated in the first place. It should've been wiped off the table earlier," said youngest daughter Cherise Blair.

The family have been frustrated by what they see as a defensive attitude by police throughout the coronial process.

The inquest has repeatedly heard of the four possible scenarios which could explain Mr Blair's disappearance - suicide, accident, foul play, or staged disappearance.

The co-worker's best theory is that Mr Blair had a health episode and has gone over the side. She doubted anybody could've forced him onto the boat without some "commotion".

But then there's a suspected missing shotgun.

"If you had a shotgun pointed at you, I'm sure you would do whatever the person holding the shotgun was demanding," Dylan said.

Brother Peter hopes that he's still alive, out there somewhere, but he accepts that is unlikely.

The family, who have made suggested recommendations to the coroner around improved communication for future police-led search and rescues, agree that all four scenarios are possible.

"This is our chance to ask questions," Rochelle said of the inquisitorial coronial process.

"Somebody left [the Marlborough Sounds] with a phone on the boat.

"I have a huge amount of questions if Dad was ever on the boat."

- NZ Herald

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