Stranded in the dark on a sinking boat in wild seas, Paul Christenson was in a terrifying struggle to survive.

The 54-year-old was travelling from Auckland towards the East Cape on Tuesday evening but headed for Tauranga when the steering began to fail on his yacht, Windsong.

It left him stranded in dangerous seas about 10km south of Mayor Island.

"The boat got worse and worse," he told the Bay of Plenty Times yesterday.


"It was taking on water. I couldn't keep up. I was fighting the boat. I was fighting the sea. The further I got, the uglier it got," he said.

"I had no navigational lights, my main radio was dead, I lost internal power. That's how I started crawling the radio for someone to hear me, for someone to get close enough to hear me and understand me."

Christenson struggled to communicate his plight on his main radio. Using a handheld device instead, he relayed a pan-pan message for three hours before it was heard.

Pan-pan is an urgent universal code considered one level below a mayday call.

Christenson continued battling to get to the safety of Tauranga Harbour. By now it was about 8pm and the rough sea was getting worse.

Tauranga Coastguard's Chris Phillips said the rough seas that forced a sailor to abandon his yacht in a daring night-time rescue were among the worst he's seen in his career. Photo/Whakatane Beacon
Tauranga Coastguard's Chris Phillips said the rough seas that forced a sailor to abandon his yacht in a daring night-time rescue were among the worst he's seen in his career. Photo/Whakatane Beacon

"Every time I would try turning her, we'd get whacked [by a wave] and she would whip right back, and I would try again and we'd get whacked again and she'd turn. I couldn't stop her from doing that. Then she just took off. She got a list on. In the end I gave up and used the Epirb [distress beacon]. Then all hell broke loose."

Christenson said there were moments where he was scared he would not survive.
"When she breached and the boat went right over, that was pretty terrifying," Christenson said.

"Then I went outside, put the sail down with 35 knots out there. I lost control of the [rope] and had to go out there. I knew I was climbing too high and the sail was hitting me and the rope was whacking me too. But what can you do? You just fight it. Grit your teeth and keep going."


Christenson's pan-pan message was eventually picked up by 266m container ship Kota Loceng, which deviated from its course to hunt for the boat, finding it about 11pm.

"They offered me a chance to climb on but it was too risky," Christenson said.

Wind had reached 35 knots (65km/h) and swells had grown to 2m.

"He followed me. I had no lights on and he had to keep hunting me down and tracking me, but he did. He was like my big brother."

Alerted by Christenson's distress signal, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand liaised with the Kota Loceng and sent a rescue helicopter to help relay communication with Christenson. The Tauranga Coastguard was also sent, arriving about 4am.

"The helicopter came but they had no winch. Then the coastguard came and told me if I stayed on my vessel, I would lose my life."

Exhausted, Christenson stood on the boat as the coastguard circled, telling him how they would sidle up to his boat and needed him to jump to them immediately when the boats were side by side.

"That was a big jump, and that was a big grab," he said. "If they rubbed against me for five minutes more, they would have sunk me."

Christenson was already suffering sea sickness and dehydration. He had been travelling to his wife in Dunedin, who was already in the South Island city catching up with friends and family.

A friend was meant to be travelling with Christenson but "bailed" at the last minute.

Christenson said he was glad because he did not think he could have handled trying to save two souls instead of just his own.

Christenson and his wife, whom he asked not be named, lived on the boat. They have lost most of their possessions.

Coastguard skipper Chris Phillips described the sea conditions that night as some of the worst in his career.

"I've dealt with some gnarly seas over the years. These were pretty bad," Phillips said.
"When waves are close together like that, driven by the wind essentially, it makes it very rough whereas a big, large swell is perfectly easy to deal with. These were short, steep waves."

Christenson said he couldn't thank his rescuers enough. "They took big risks and caught me when they needed to."

He looked back at his ordeal philosophically. "It teaches you what's important. Two days ago I worried about money and property. I put my life at risk to move my boat. This morning, I don't give a living monkey's," he said. "The first thing I'm going to do when I get home is hold my wife very tightly."

Late yesterday, the Windsong washed up at the south end of Waihi Beach.