A year ago this week four Kiwi sailors found themselves stranded in towering seas and fierce winds off Northland aboard a yacht sinking beneath their feet, and with an empty life raft cradle.
Three, including Pamela Pedersen, speaking for the first time about the loss of her husband, Stuart Pedersen, in the tragedy, tell Cherie Howie their story of survival, and the heroism that made it possible.
When help came for four stricken sailors floating in, and frequently under, waves more than six metres high, amid howling winds and horizontal rain 37 kilometres off Northland's Cape Brett, it looked like a "giant, beautiful spider".
"I remember someone shouting about the Orion flying over," Pamela Pedersen says of the moment she first thought, almost two hours after the family yacht Essence sank on October 14 last year, that "maybe, just maybe, we're going to be okay".
"That was a moment we were all excited about, and then they dropped the life raft and it was like, oh, imagine the most beautiful fireworks display that you've ever seen, and we're all staring up in wonder at this thing."
There was the main part of the Royal New Zealand Air Force liferaft, a bright yellow and orange sanctuary with plenty of room for Pedersen and the three others with her in the water after Essence was rolled by a wave so powerful its cabin windows were smashed and its own life raft was ripped from its cradle.
But also dangling from the falling raft were several long guide ropes, fixed with flotations and arrows to help those in the water - Pedersen, her husband and Essence's skipper Stuart Pedersen, their brother-in-law Stephen Newman, and friend Bruce Goodwin.
"So, it's a really pretty thing," Pedersen says.
"Because it looks like this giant, beautiful spider in the sky just coming down over you."
Seven days had passed since they'd sailed away from the gentle trade winds of Fiji on a planned seven or eight-day ocean voyage home to Tauranga, aiming, as so many yachties do, to avoid the looming tropical cyclone season.
Conditions were perfect - blue skies and wind just aft of the beam, and Essence was comfortably averaging around seven knots as they sailed south, Pedersen says.
"We were marvelling at the conditions and how wonderful it was, and just loving it."
The couple's journey home came after six months sailing around Tonga and Fiji, a return to the months-long voyages which took their family to more than 50 countries over seven years when their two children were young.
It'd always been in the back of their minds to head off again once the kids were
grown - as a boy Whakatāne-raised Stuart Pedersen sailed P-class, the small, single sail dinghies popular with young people, and the couple later half-owned a Raven 31 coastal yacht before buying Essence, their dream boat, in 2000.
Sailing allowed them to see the world beyond the tourist trail, and to experience the adventure, beauty and freedom of independent travel by water.
"[There's] this sense that you're just this tiny thing in a majestic universe," Pedersen says.
"And you're out there on the ocean, and you're completely on your own."
'We'll be fine'
Skinny, mountainous, surrounded by thousands of kilometres of some of the world's biggest oceans and smack bang in the mid-latitudes, New Zealand gets its share of foul weather.
Sometimes it rolls down from the tropics, and this was the case with the low-pressure system that struck the country's north - and the sailors aboard Essence - on October 14 last year.
The centre of the system passed directly over Northland on October 14 and 15, when its pressure fell as low as 986hPa at midday, MetService meteorologist Lewis Ferris says.
The strongest wind gust from the system - 131km/h - struck Cape Reinga at midday on October 14; at Bay of Islands' Okahu Island, 11km west of Cape Brett, a gust reached 124km/h between 2pm and 3pm the same day, Ferris says.
Essence wasn't the only watercraft affected by the atrocious conditions - an 11-metre yacht moored off Russell boat ramp almost sank and two other vessels, one weighing 100 tonnes, broke their moorings on October 16.
While the system was the kind more often seen during the tropical cyclone season between November and April, it could occur at any time.
"This is the kind of system that brought quite a lot of rain to Northland in July," Ferris says, referring to the one-in-500-year flood that blocked roads, damaged properties and forced evacuations.
They'd been keeping an eye on the low in the days before October 14, Pedersen says.
"Stuart was reviewing it and thinking we were going to be okay ... I remember him saying, 'This is where the centre of it is,' and it was up off the top of Northland and we were well down from that."
Lengthy discussions took place before it was decided, because of conditions which included huge waves coming from different directions, to take the shortest sailable course to safety - Ōpua, in the Bay of Islands.
"We worked it all out and thought, 'No, we'll be fine,' with where it was tracking. But no, we weren't [fine].
"It changed its course, as these things do, and I guess it had our name on it."
Those aboard began preparing for rough seas, including alerting the Coastguard to Essence's position and intentions, and later arranging to check in hourly, Pedersen says.
"We just did everything we could, really."
'I went into free fall'
By the early hours of October 14, when she was on the watch between 2am and 4am, Essence was sailing "beautifully well", Pedersen says.
It was late morning when things began to feel "not as comfortable".
By then her husband was at the helm, with the mainsail at the third reef - effectively the same as using a trysail, she says.
"It's just a tiny little handkerchief of sail."
Goodwin, the second most experienced sailor aboard, went up to help, but felt comfortable enough to have breakfast - "flash muesli" prepared by Pedersen - first.
He felt less comfortable when he got there.
"The waves were steeper than I'd expected for the wind strength."
Winds were blowing at 35kts when he arrived on deck, but they "just continued rising right up beyond 60kts".
Waves arrived from different directions and while the rain was light, it was also horizontal.
It was "active" work as the pair took turns hand-steering the yacht - it was too dangerous for the auto-pilot - but not exhausting, the 66-year-old says.
But a big hit sometime before midday tossed Essence to the downwind side, ripping away the solar panels fixed to that side.
Worse was to follow.
"We started to rise up a wave," Goodwin says.
"Usually we could hear the breaking wave coming towards us, but I didn't hear any breaking wave at all. We rose up and rolled over, and I went into free fall.
"I remember snapping up on to the end of my harnesses in mid-air, and then all of a sudden I was pushed underwater - the boat went right over, and it dragged along at quite a speed because the boat was travelling between 7.5 and 8.5kts.
"There was this enormous pressure on the harness, but I had two tethers attached [to the yacht] in different places so I was held under the boat."
He doesn't know how long he was underwater, but there was no panic.
"I could do what I could do in those circumstances, which was effectively nothing."
"The next thing I knew I was on deck and Stuart was trying to clear some debris off me, untangle me and get me back into position."
His skipper must've had a similar experience trapped underwater, but they didn't talk about it, Goodwin says.
"I was suddenly wide awake and ready to go … I ran my eye over the boat, and we could've kept sailing. The mast was still up. Most of the things on deck were wrecked … the electronics were gone, but the steering was still working and we still would've had a compass to steer by.
"But I didn't realise how bad it was down below."
'I didn't know which way was up'
It was bad.
"It happened just like that," Pedersen says of the moment Essence went over.
"All of a sudden Stevie [Newman] and I were on the saloon floor, water over our heads, with stuff on top of us, like the table and the stairs. I had a blow to my head and ankle, and I didn't even know which way was up.
"All I knew was I was underwater. I didn't even know what had happened."
Newman, who felt as if the yacht was sliding on its side down the wave before hearing a booming sound and feeling himself tumbling, thought he'd passed through Essence's broken windows.
"I felt I was fully immersed … I remember struggling in the water trying to push my head up, and arms and legs out, and felt nothing but water and debris brushing me.
"I was convinced I was somehow out of the boat."
Fumbling for his life jacket's deployment cord, Newman, a Wellington-based New Zealand Army lieutenant colonel, eventually emerged in mid-thigh deep water inside the saloon.
The saloon was in such disarray Pedersen at first wondered if she was dreaming.
"I'm just seeing incredible amounts of water just gush through big gaping windows. We had quite big windows and we think we'd fallen off a wave. We think the wave was quite steep and maybe there was air underneath us and we'd fallen over to starboard, and the two starboard windows breached.
"There were enormous amounts of water in our boat and everything was everywhere."
She tried to push one floating object, a large squab, into the space where the windows were, Pedersen says.
"Then I thought, 'Futile.'"
It was time to call for help.
"I said, 'I suspect we're sinking and we'll be getting into the life raft,'" Pedersen says of her 12.29pm Mayday call over the VHF marine radio.
The GPS had failed so they went to grab the yacht's Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon [EPIRB], which sends a homing signal for rescuers to pinpoint the location of those in distress.
But the beacon wasn't there.
"I couldn't believe it had gone … I needed two hands to wrench it off its bracket and it had been swept off by the water that came through."
The pair searched with their hands through the flooded saloon to no avail, but there was no panic, Pedersen says.
"Your instinct kicks in and you know you have a better chance if you stay calm. So you stay calm."
'The life raft's gone'
Still, she was worried for her husband and Goodwin on the deck.
Newman opened the hatch, but neither man above realised Essence was taking on water, Pedersen says.
"Stuart shouted, 'Stay down, stay down.'"
When the pair entered the saloon soon after, he could see the skipper was stunned by the situation - which included Pedersen's bleeding head wound - and he later apologised for "telling me to get back into a sinking boat", although there were no hard feelings, Newman says.
He also brought with him bad news - the yacht's life raft had, like its EPIRB, been swept away.
"I think we all coped quite well with this unfortunate news. Pamela ... advised the Coastguard the liferaft was also gone."
There was even a moment of levity after Goodwin sloshed through the sinking yacht to retrieve his personal locator beacon, fixing it - strobe flashing - around his neck.
"I remember saying to Bruce, to the laugh of the others, that Bruce was now our new best friend and he'd never be alone till we stood on dry land."
Using a hand pump to buy time the group calmly prepared to abandon Essence, talking about "what we'd do [and] how we all intended to survive" while eating chocolate and drinking bottled water Pedersen had seen float past, Newman says.
"One enduring image was looking up at the mast and seeing stuck on the spreaders a T-shirt of Bruce's that'd been sucked out of the cabin through the broken windows."
Goodwin also remembers the sense of calm despite the worsening situation.
"It might seem strange but fear wasn't an issue. It was just going from one plan to the next ... when I went to get the life raft, and there was just this empty life raft cradle, I remember saying, 'The life raft's gone, but we can do it.'
"We only had each other's encouragement to keep us going, and I couldn't have been with three better people for a situation like that. Everyone contributed."
'1, 2, 3 - now'
They stepped into the water about 12.50pm, after Essence's stern rose and the Bavaria Ocean Centre Cockpit yacht's bow started sinking into the sea, Newman says.
Soon tethered together, they tried in vain to stay close together for warmth.
An albatross landed at their side, bobbing on the water and offering comfort especially to Goodwin, a Christian.
"When I saw that albatross … it gave me confidence to know that whatever happened, I'm in His hands."
For Newman, it was the beauty of the waves that caught his attention, even as they rose at times to 10m, broke and then pushed everyone underwater.
"I noticed, from the crest of the rollers, the amazing blue of the phosphorescence of surf waves atop other mountainous rollers … it was just amazing colours."
Pedersen remembers her husband's voice.
"He was the strongest of all of us and he took charge and was encouraging us. And he'd call the waves as they came, 'This is a big one, we're going to need to hold our breath, 1, 2, 3 - now,' and we'd be under the water for some seconds, and because we were all tied together it was like being in a washing machine.
"We were all tangled up with lines, I got a line around my ankle at one stage and it was stretched tight. We had too much spare line and they were causing problems, mostly for Stuart. But he was still really strong."
He also called to each of them as the group, losing energy, grew quiet, Pedersen says.
"I didn't answer once because I was in a trance. The way I coped was to imagine I was in the hot pools at Lake Rotoiti, I imagined I was in the hottest one and had to keep really still because to move would hurt.
"I said, 'Stuart, I'm in the hot pools, you should try.'"
More than 200 kilometres away, help was on its way.
"It takes an hour and a half to two hours to get ready and take off," Air Force squadron leader Mark Chadwick says of the 1.45pm Orion flight out of Whenuapai, in Auckland.
"This day we got airborne in about 45 minutes."
Across the city at Ardmore Airport, two Auckland Westpac Rescue helicopters were also heading north, they'd refuel at Whāngārei before one - Westpac 1's AW-169 - continued on to the sailors and the other stayed behind as back-up.
The Orion arrived first, descending to a search altitude of 152m, just below the cloud base.
Visibility was about two kilometres and the signal from Goodwin's beacon was coming in and out as the waves pushed him underwater.
But Stuart Pedersen was also using a waterproof handheld VHF radio to speak with the Orion crew, counting backwards from 10 as observers tried to spot the sailors.
"We could tell how hard it was for them," Chadwick, the tactical coordinator on the rescue mission, says.
"Some of the transmissions were pretty garbled."
Just after 2.40pm, almost two hours after the group entered the water, they were spotted.
The Orion wagged its wings and a mark was dropped into the aircraft's computer system so, based on drift, the sailors could be found again if sight was lost - which it immediately was thanks to the poor visibility, Chadwick says.
But the crew managed again to spot the sailors and the Air Force life raft was soon falling from the sky.
Goodwin began swimming as hard as he could, stopping repeatedly when he ran out of breath, before reaching the rope.
For 20 minutes he struggled to pull himself towards the life raft chute, eventually going in feet first because of the tangle of people and ropes behind him.
He then pulled in Newman, an "enormous battle" because the younger man was still tethered to the Pedersens, who were completely tangled outside the life raft.
"They weren't going anywhere … it was just one great big mess of ropes."
Each man held one of the pair - for Goodwin, this was Pamela Pedersen.
"Each time I tried to haul her in it felt like she was slipping out of her life jacket, so I ended up just holding her head out of the water."
His friend's eyes were open, but she was grey and blue in the face and non-responsive, Goodwin says.
"The waves would wash over her head at times and it just didn't seem to bother her. That's where my post-traumatic stress is centred, in that moment, when I just didn't have a Plan B."
At his side, Newman was also struggling to get any more than Stuart Pedersen's head and shoulders on to the liferaft, at times yelling at him to keep his eyes open.
"Pamela seemed to hear this as I heard her shout, 'You keep those eyes open Stuart, don't you give up.'
"He seemed to rally a little at her voice and his eyes focused a bit."
But the surging sea was relentless, dragging his brother-in-law down again and again, Newman says.
"[And] one of his hands was locked on Pamela's hand and I couldn't get him to let go to try and hold the boat to help me lift him up."
Then, a shadow appeared over the life raft.
The 400m sprint while holding your breath
Karl Taylor's been a paramedic for 20 years, and part of the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter team for eight.
As he and the crew of a second intensive care paramedic, a winch operator and two pilots arrived to help, the danger to those below was immediately clear.
"The sea state was massive, a few waves were coming through at 10m … and these swells were breaking, which makes them quite dangerous. The whitewash is really powerful.
"That's when you really feel the power of the ocean, when you see those white caps and those breaking waves hit you."
He dropped from the helicopter into the water and made his way to the Pedersens, drawing out his knife and ducking, and being pushed, underwater again and again.
"I had to cut them out of that tangle of ropes, lines and drogues before I could put the strop on them … I felt like I was doing a 400m sprint while holding my breath and being beaten around by the waves.
"It's definitely the most taxing rescue, probably the most complex rescue, I've had to perform."
Still holding his brother-in-law, Newman had to tell the skipper - still clutching his wife's
hand - to "let go of Pamela".
"[I said] 'We're safe, let her go.' This story, it's a love story."
With that, the 58-year-old was winched 20m up to Westpac 1, which was also chasing Pamela Pedersen as she now, untethered, drifted away from the life raft, Newman says.
"I remember Stuart was festooned in claggage like the dan buoy, life ring and grab bag."
Inside the helicopter, the crew realised Stuart Pedersen had died, but there was no time to dwell - Taylor feared Pamela Pedersen, whose body temperature had fallen to 28C, also might not make it.
She remembers little from the rescue, but she knows she gave Taylor a fright when she suddenly grabbed the winch cable in a dangerous place as he attached the strop to her.
"He thought I'd gone."
Goodwin was next on the winch, describing the experience as "a bit like a Disneyland ride".
"But it was also a salvation moment. I thought, 'Right, I don't have to do anything now, I'm in his hands.'"
The Waihī grandfather was so weak when he was put in the helicopter he couldn't even lift his head off the floor, but after being put in a seat was cheered by a small smile from Pedersen and a big one from Newman, last to be rescued 25 minutes after Westpac 1 arrived.
He looked for a third. It didn't come.
"I realised, 'Stu can't be alive.'"
'He had so much more to give'
Stuart Pedersen might've become an MP today.
A two-time candidate for Tauranga, he was tipped for a high list place for his party and would likely have won a seat in Parliament.
"He would've just loved it," Pedersen says.
"On the way back from Fiji he was speaking about it a lot. He said, 'I'm really going to give it everything.'"
She's "so incredibly proud" of her husband, for his actions on October 14 last year, and every day before that.
A successful career in finance was mirrored by his voluntary and charity work, including as a Rotarian and as chairman of the Bay of Plenty Sailing Academy Trust, which gave all kids the chance to learn to sail.
"He just wanted to make a difference ... he was successful, but he cared. He thought you should have freedom of choice, but with that comes responsibility.
"Stuart gave so much and he had so much more to give, and I miss him hugely, as do a lot of people. And I'm also so sorry for him because he's missing out on so much now, too."
But she's thankful, too, for the support from family, friends and the wider community, including ongoing care from Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter staff and volunteers.
"Nothing over the top, but just in a kind way, they'll say, 'I'm thinking of you,' or give you a hug."
And she's thankful for those who gave everything to help after Essence was lost.
That started with Goodwin and Newman, for their mighty efforts at the life raft, the Orion and rescue helicopter crews who came from afar and saved three lives.
"It was unbelievable what they did.
"It was ridiculously difficult conditions, and they effected the most absolutely extraordinary rescue."
*To support the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust visit rescuehelicopter.org.nz or freephone 0800 4 RESCUE (0800 4 737283).