Boat tragedy: rescuers saw huge walls of green water

4:49 pm on 28 November 2016

A senior member of a local surf club involved in the search for men missing in the Kaipara boat tragedy says the operator made a bad error of judgment going out in atrocious conditions.

Teams are searching by air and in four-wheel-drive vehicles around North and South Head for a man still missing, presumed dead, from the Francie fishing charter vessel, which capsized on Saturday.

The boat, which had 11 people on board, got into trouble as it tried to cross the bar at Kaipara Harbour, which locals have described as treacherous. The 10 passengers, from Auckland, were of Pacific Island descent.

The Francie, a fishing charter vessel thought to have got into trouble on the Kaipara Harbour.

The Francie, a fishing charter vessel that capsized on the Kaipara Harbour. Photo: Francie Charters / Facebook

Seven bodies have been recovered. Three survived the sinking. Skipper Bill McNatty is believed to have perished.

The Francie was taking a group of 10 men from Auckland out for a day's fishing when it tried to cross a bar - a place where many ships have foundered over the years.

Tim Jago from the Muriwai Surf Club told Morning Report rescuers saw huge walls of green water 1km offshore.

"Local knowledge would tell you that things were going to deteriorate, and I think read in to that. This boat operator, he would have had the same local and the same forecast that we were all operating to and sort of saying it was a day that was going to get worse."

Mr Jago said the club decided it was too dangerous to send its own boats out.

He said none of the bodies club found by club members wore lifejackets.

Kaipara Harbour bar 'treacherous'

Kaipara Cruising club commodore Steve McGregor said conditions could change in an instant on the harbour.

He hoped the tragedy would send a signal to others to be extremely cautious before deciding to cross the bar.

"Going across that bar, whether it be New Plymouth, Manukau, Kaipara, Hokianga, they're a treacherous place if you don't know what you're doing. People get complacent and they just think it's a walk in the park, it's not a bloody walk in the park."

A friend of the skipper has questioned the maritime authorities allowing passenger vessels to cross the bar with people on board.

Owner of Kaipara Cruises Terry Somers said before early 2000 no passenger vessels were allowed to cross the bar, but maritime authorities changed the rules, meaning skippers could come in and out of the Kaipara Bar.

Terry Somers said skipper Bill McNatty did not make a good call crossing the bar in bad weather, especially when it appeared at least some of the passengers were not wearing life jackets.

Maritime New Zealand is yet to comment about a change of rules.

Coastguard defends forecast

There has been criticism of forecasts not being specific enough.

Coastguard said it provided boaties with up-to-the-minute live information on the conditions, specifically for the Kaipara Harbour.

Coastguard Northland's operations manager Ray Burge said it had a good service called NowCasting.

"You can turn it on and 24 hours a day it will give you exactly what the weather is doing, up to the minute."

Locals gather

Ngāti Whatua o Kaipara hapū members were at a wānanga at Puatahi Marae near Warkworth when they heard of the tragedy.

"We all gathered together and had a prayer and our hearts go out to the families ...such a feeling of aroha and sadness that this tragedy has happened," Local kaumātua Haahi Walker said.

Mr Walker said a rāhui, or ritual ban, would remain in place [over the Kaipara Harbour] at least until searchers found the missing person.

"When there has been a loss of life a tapu is automatically put over the moana."

Haahi Walker said since they were children they were warned about the dangers of that part of the harbour and avoided it.

"When the winds and the tides clash it is very dangerous there."

Locals pay tribute to lost skipper

Parakai Wharf, from where the Francie set off on Saturday morning, was empty last night, and the water still.

Locals who knew the boat's skipper, Bill McNatty, had gathered all day at the Kaipara Cruising club, to pay their respects to him and the other men.

Steve McGregor said, like many of those gathered at the club, he knew Mr McNatty very well.

"He was a top guy, and as I say if you wanted anything and he could help, he certainly would help, he would be there. He had a forklift over here and he used to use his forklift to bring us up with the boats and what not and do motor changes and all sorts of things, he was a big help around this club."

Mr McGregor said everyone's hearts went out to the families of those who died.

"You know a party of guys from Auckland, which is quite common, the charter boats take them out all the time, different ones, busy time of the year for these guys."

Flowers were left at the Kaipara Cruising Club for the victims. The flag is being flown at half mast.

Inspector Willi Fanene and Inspector Mark Fergus talking to the media.

Inspector Willi Fanene and Inspector Mark Fergus talk to media. Photo: RNZ

'A sad day for everybody'

Chair of the Tongan Advisory Council, Melino Maka, was out in the Kaipara Harbour on another fishing charter boat, which left a few hours after the Francie.

He said their boat was meant to cross the bar, but the captain decided it was too rough.

"We were only about 15 kilometres away from where the boat was last reported. It's a sad day for everybody in New Zealand, but also for our Tongan community. The only thing I can offer at this stage is our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones."

A police investigation is under way to determine exactly what happened and whether anyone was responsible for the tragedy.

They are are expected to release the names of the men who died this afternoon.

Scores of tributes have been paid to them on social media.

Four TAIC investigators

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) has sent investigators to gather evidence.

The commission has sent two investigators two Auckland. Two more would arrive from Wellington soon, it said.

Commission chief investigator Tim Burfoot said any safety issues identified in the early phases of the inquiry would be addressed through urgent safety recommendations.