Urgent safety plea would serve the Kaipara bar victims

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Taulagi Afamasaga (left), a paying passenger on the charter boat Francie which has not been seen since it disappeared last Saturday in dreadful conditions on the Kaipara Bar.
Taulagi Afamasaga (left), a paying passenger on the charter boat Francie which has not been seen since it disappeared last Saturday in dreadful conditions on the Kaipara Bar.

The police yesterday called off the search for Taulagi Afamasaga, a paying passenger on the charter boat Francie which has not been seen since it disappeared last Saturday in dreadful conditions on the Kaipara Bar.

The 56-year-old was one of the eight men on board lost in the maritime disaster.

From everything now known about the catastrophe, even before the outcome of a series of inquiries, it is clear that the decision to set out for a day's fishing was wrong. The tragic consequences flowed that error of judgment.

Harbour entrances and river mouths on the New Zealand coast present challenges to vessels which cross them.

Sea conditions around bars can be dangerous and unpredictable. Boats can become unstable and difficult to handle. Steep, breaking and sometimes high waves can form unexpectedly.

Coupled with strong tides and blustery winds, bars clearly present skippers with exacting demands. For these reasons, Maritime New Zealand has a code of practice for bar crossings, which sets out clear guidelines for skippers and crew when their boat is moving over the underwater hazard.

The code states that it is the skipper's responsibility whether or not to cross a bar, and to be aware that a rapid change in conditions could prevent a safe return to harbour.

Last Saturday, weather conditions off Kaipara were such that other vessels inside the harbour chose to stay there and not head out to sea. This forecast was available to Bill McNatty, the skipper of the Francie, who decided to head out.

Specific advice in the code which all prudent skippers are meant to follow states that if in doubt, stay out. In one of his final communications from his vessel, McNatty advised that he was returning to the Kaipara across the bar.

Waves in the area at the time were reported to be as high as four metres.

The code includes advice about lifejackets. The guidance is clear. It states that "every person should wear a Personal Flotation Device of an appropriate size."

Francie's commercial charter work was covered by Maritime NZ operating conditions. These required the vessel to carry sufficient lifejackets of the correct size for everyone on board. They were to be worn at all times unless the skipper deemed it safe that they were not worn.

The Maritime Operator Safety System conditions meant the skipper had to ensure lifejackets were worn when crossing the bar and in adverse weather.

It is not yet apparent whether the passengers on Francie were wearing lifejackets when it foundered, but it has been reported that at least one survivor could not fit into his protective equipment.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission, which has begun an investigation into the disaster, has the ability to issue urgent safety recommendation's regarding maritime safety rules.

It would serve the memory of those who perished in last weekend's calamity for it to immediately remind everyone who goes to sea about the deadly dangers of bars, of the need to wear lifejackets on the water and the imperative for skippers to exercise common sense before setting out.

- NZ Herald

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