22 Jul 2021

Yacht sinking that killed Stuart Pedersen leads to rule change

11:20 pm on 22 July 2021

The sinking of a yacht which left the skipper - an ACT Party candidate - dead could have been avoided if storm covers were fitted to the cabin windows, a Maritime NZ report has found.

Plywood storm coverings in position, but not secured over windows, on a Bavaria Oceans 47 sister ship.

Plywood storm coverings in position, but not secured over windows, on a Bavaria Oceans 47 sister ship. Photo: Maritime NZ

The 14m yacht Essence foundered in heavy seas off Cape Brett in Northland on 14 October 2019 on a return sailing to New Zealand from Fiji.

The skipper, Stuart Pedersen, died after it started taking water and sank 37km from the Cape. His wife and two others were also on board.

Pedersen was a well-known Tauranga sailor, an entrepreneur, chair of the Bay of Plenty Sailing Academy Trust, and a candidate for the ACT Party, though Tauranga Yacht and Powerboat club commodore Andy Knowles said he "absolutely hated the idea of actually going into Parliament".

The report said the ship began sinking after repeatedly striking heavy waves, which entered the cockpit and smashed the rear windows.

"As conditions worsened, crew described a series of semi-knockdowns during which waves broke onto the cockpit. During the final severe knockdown crew saw the starboard windows explode, followed by an inundation of water below deck," it said.

The crew abandoned the vessel and were rescued from the sea by helicopter about two hours after it sank.

Maritime NZ northern compliance manager Neil Rowarth said regulations required that storm covers be on board - but not necessarily fitted - on international voyages from New Zealand in case they became needed.

He said the rules had since been amended so the covers would be required to be fitted to windows of a certain size.

"Under the amended regulations, storm coverings must now be fitted over windows for all windows more than 1852cm2 in area," the report said.

"The amendment thus avoids the need for crew to fit storm coverings at sea, which can be a difficult and dangerous undertaking, particularly in heavy seas."

Maritime NZ said although he died, the skipper was found to be instrumental in contributing to the survival of his crew throughout the ordeal.

It found that abandon ship procedures were discussed, but the crew said no written procedures document was posted on the bulkhead.

It said the yacht's liferaft was likely washed off the deck by waves, or the unit securing it was activated by pressure from the knockdown.

"When sighted by the Orion P3 crew, it appeared fully inflated. Regardless of the mechanism involved, this highlights the vulnerability of safety equipment stowed on an exposed deck during heavy seas."

The report said high maintenance and equipment standards were otherwise maintained on the vessel.

'Stu was particularly brave'

Before his death, Pedersen got a crew member who was on deck out from underwater and made sure two crew got into a liferaft.

Yachting New Zealand chief executive David Abercrombie - also an old friend of Pedersen's - said he put others first.

"The report demonstrates that Stu was particularly brave in making sure that he did everything he could to save the lives of others on the boat."

Maritime New Zealand northern compliance manager Neil Rowarth hoped the regulation change would prevent similar tragedies.

"When New Zealand-registered pleasure vessels leave the country the inspection that they have to have before they leave will ensure that adequate storm covers are available and in place to prevent the windows breaking like they did on the Essence."

Bruce Carley had been out on the Essence with his dear friend Stuart previously - and said he took "extremely good care of his yacht and extremely good care of his crew".

Carley was looking after the Pedersens' cat while he was away on his Fiji voyage.

He said his old friend was a popular Tauranga community member and very caring.

"[He was] extremely generous and very diligent. There were no half measures with Stu, if he wanted something to be done, he would go absolutely all out to achieve it, and if he saw that somebody needed some help, he would give them every assistance available."

ACT leader David Seymour said the loss of Stuart Pedersen was still "very fresh" for party members.

He said he was a "great man with a gleam in his eye" and "gone too soon".

"I remember people in an internal Facebook group saying 'there's a yacht missing, it could be Stu'. And I thought 'not a chance that wouldn't happen to Stu'. And of course that's what tragedies are like, they suddenly become real. We feel a huge sense of loss and sadness."

Seymour hoped the report would bring the Pedersen family some closure and said his thoughts were with them.