A ferry crowded with passengers has sunk and its skipper has been critically injured after a collision with a pleasure boat in the Bay of Islands.
The crash occurred about 11.50am on Thursday, just minutes after the ferry had departed Russell on its regular run to Paihia.
The port side and wheelhouse of the wooden ferry, officially the Waitere but better known as the Blue Ferry, disintegrated in the impact with broken wood strewn throughout the vessel.
At least one passenger, possibly two, was thrown into the water.
The skipper, who is well known in the Bay of Islands and believed to be in his 70s, bore the brunt of the impact. He is thought to have suffered a spinal injury as well as serious head wounds.
He was airlifted to Middlemore Hospital’s spinal unit by the Northland Rescue Helicopter, which took off from the Paihia School field.
Remarkably, given the severity of the damage and the number of people on board the ferry — it was packed with school holiday visitors — no one else was injured.
The passengers clambered on to another vessel, the Happy Ferry, while the skipper was taken to shore by a parasailing boat.
The ferry sank about two hours later.
The launch, a Boston Whaler, appeared to have received only minor damage to the bow. Its skipper was uninjured.
That vessel was escorted to Opua boatyard and placed under police guard. It was handed over to Maritime New Zealand investigators about 4pm.
Ferry passengers included Robyn Bregmen of Raglan, who was heading to Paihia with her husband and two grandsons, aged 3 and 7. It was the boys’ first time on a ferry.
“About five minutes out we saw this boat coming full speed towards us. We thought, surely he’s not going to hit us. He’ll slow down or turn away,” she said.
“Next minute he hit us full speed. It was a hell of a bang. I grabbed the boys. I thought we were going to sink. People sitting at the front were thrown in the water.”
A scramble for lifejackets ensued. No one knew where to find them, but there were plenty of life rings.
Bregmen’s husband went to check the skipper — the launch hit where he had been sitting — and turn the motor off.
“A few people were with him. He wasn’t in a good way.”
She believed one man and a child were in the launch. The man initially made no attempt to rescue passengers from the water, she said.
“We had to ask him, ‘Go and get those people’. Maybe he didn’t realise they were in the water.”
“When we walked out we had to watch for nails. There was wood everywhere. The other ferry put their ramp out, and we climbed over broken wood to get on.”
Bregmen said her family was unhurt but shaken. They didn’t want to take a ferry back to Russell so a relative drove around to pick them up.
Rich De Rosa, owner of Flying Kiwi Parasail, was among the rescuers.
He didn’t see the collision but moments later saw the ferry wasn’t in the channel and its sign was on an angle.
Assuming it was in trouble, he went to help.
“When we got closer we could see the side of the ferry was crushed. You could see into the engine room. It was a complete T-bone impact on the port side.”
A few passengers were already helping the skipper.
By chance, two of the customers aboard the parasailing boat were doctors, one from Whangārei, the other from Christchurch, so De Rosa and crew member Elliot Bexon helped them on to the stricken ferry.
“We pulled a door off to use as a stretcher to transfer the skipper across to our boat,” Bexon said.
“Logistically it wasn’t good because there was a lot of debris everywhere. We got people on our boat and people on the ferry, about four or five on each side, and got him aboard. The ambulance arrived a few minutes after we got to the wharf.”
They saw the ferry sink about 2.10pm.
De Rosa said it was fortunate the launch hadn’t struck the rear of the ferry, where most passengers were sitting.
“That would’ve been a different story,” he said.
A St John spokesperson said the skipper had suffered serious head wounds but the greatest concern was for his spine. Fortunately, two doctors on the scene were able to stabilise him almost immediately.
The skipper was in critical condition when flown to Middlemore Hospital.
Northland harbourmaster Jim Lyle said the ferry had sunk close to the channel, roughly midway between Paihia and Russell, but the wreck had been clearly marked with buoys.
An attempt would be made on Friday to recover it.
Two Coastguard Bay of Islands rescue boats transported police to the scene, stayed with the damaged vessel until it sank, and searched the area for anyone else who may have been in the water.
The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) is appealing for witnesses who saw, photographed or videoed the collision.
Chief investigator Naveen Kozhuppakalam said he was keen to hear as soon as possible from people on either vessel, who saw the accident or saw the boats any time beforehand.
“Details are crucial, so if you can tell us anything relevant or if you have photographs or videos, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org,” he said.
TAIC has placed protection orders on both vessels and any items that may have floated away. Anyone who finds an object from the accident is allowed to pick it up to safeguard it but must inform police or TAIC as soon as possible.