Rachel Smalley is a radio host for Newstalk ZB. Listen to her between 5am and 6am every weekday morning.

Rachel Smalley: Kaipara Harbour tragedy a senseless, avoidable loss of life

Why did the Francie try to cross the treacherous bar one last time?
Why did the Francie try to cross the treacherous bar one last time?

The tragedy in Kaipara Harbour. Eight men dead. The largest maritime disaster in recent times. A senseless, avoidable loss of life.

Children are now without their fathers, mothers without sons, wives and partners without their loved ones, forever. And countless extended family members and friends whose lives have been changed forever because of a decision to tackle a bar in an unforgiving sea, in atrocious conditions.

I've had so many conversations over the weekend about what happened on the Kaipara, and every conversation comes back to one central question - why?

Why did the boat cross the bar and go out into the open sea in the first place, when the weather was forecast to deteriorate that afternoon? And why, when the weather did turn, did the skipper make the decision to try and re-enter the harbour in such a huge swell? They are questions we may never know the answers to.

The skipper, Bill McNatty rang through to Coastguard Radio and asked for a 60 minute watch. That was at 2.02 on Saturday afternoon. He was going to attempt to cross the bar. And then by 3.02, when there was no contact with the Francie, the Coastguard raised the alarm. Local boats in the area couldn't see a vessel. It had simply disappeared.

I live on the same coastline on the West Coast, but I'm a little further south. And my husband and a friend were talking about going out for a surf at Piha on Saturday morning. And Luke said if they were going out, it had to be in the morning because they knew the swell was going to 'spike', as they say. And as we know, the conditions on the West Coast can change dramatically and dangerously in a matter of minutes.

I swim on both coasts - the East and West - but when you're in the water out West, you're so much more aware of the strength and the force of that surf. It is unforgiving. You feel the weight of the water behind every wave and it pulls you back with such a force, when the tide sucks back out again. It's safe to swim out West, you just need to stay between the flags. You need to know someone is always watching.

And I don't know any locals who've died in those waters in the last five years or so that I've lived there. It's day-trippers or tourists who are the most vulnerable. They typically enter the water where it looks calm ... but without realising it they've walked straight into a rip. And that is why the situation in Kaipara is as baffling as it is tragic. It was a locally-skippered boat. Locals know the West Coast. The sea conditions and weather reports dictate everything they do. That a skipper with so much experience attempted to tackle that bar in such a huge swell ... it just doesn't make sense.

One fateful decision. Eight lives lost.

The Coastguard says the Francie was the only vessel to cross the treacherous bar on Friday and Saturday in terrible conditions.

It made it across three times - but not the fourth. Not the fourth time when the Coastguard said the waves breaking on top of the swell would have been close to the height of a two storey house.

And that brings us back to the central question, doesn't it? Why? Why when there was so much at stake, did the Francie try to cross the bar one last time?

The answer to that question may lie with the Francie at the bottom of the sea.

- Newstalk ZB

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Rachel Smalley is a radio host for Newstalk ZB. Listen to her between 5am and 6am every weekday morning.

Rachel’s career in journalism is extensive. She has reported from Europe, Africa, Asia and America, covering elections in Britain, the United States, France and New Zealand. She joined Newstalk ZB as host of KPMG Early Edition in 2013 and also works on TVNZ’s Sunday and Q&A current affairs programmes.

Read more by Rachel Smalley

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