'I didn't see it coming'

A Southland boat skipper shed tears yesterday as he recounted a Foveaux Strait fishing trip which turned to tragedy and ended in the death of his son and his best friend.

Barry Bethune told a coroner's inquest in Invercargill his catamaran Extreme One was well equipped and well maintained, but there was nothing he could do when a massive wave hit the vessel side-on during an evening fishing trip on January 3 this year.

The boat was flipped immediately and sank within 10 minutes, he said, taking with it his emergency VHF radio and emergency position indicator radio beacon (EPIRB).

All five aboard were wearing life jackets. They climbed on to the hull but were unable to call for help because their cellphones were wet. When the boat sank, they linked arms and began swimming towards White Island.

After several hours in the cold water, Mr Bethune's son Shaun David Bethune (23), of Ryal Bush, and Lindsay James Cullen (59), of Brydone, died and Mr Bethune and sisters Denise Zonneveld and Carol Saxton had to make the decision to let their bodies go.

They spotted the boat Easy Rider moored off Ruapuke Island and swam to it. No-one was on the boat, but their cries of help were heard about 10pm by boat-owner Rewai Karetai and his wife, Gloria Davis, who were camping on the island. Mr Karetai rowed out to them in a dinghy and towed them to shore.

Mr Karetai and seven others died in Foveaux Strait two months later when Easy Rider capsized and sank.

Mr Bethune said he was steering Extreme One in "sloppy" waves when the large wave hit.

"I didn't see it coming ..."

Ms Zonneveld, of Edendale, was a friend of Mr Cullen's. Her sister was visiting from Wellington. Both were keen anglers and accepted an invitation to go fishing.

The sisters were wearing several layers of clothing, including thermals and leggings but the men were lightly dressed in jeans, T-shirts and sweatshirts.

Ms Saxton said she was in the cabin when she saw a wall of water "like light blue glass" come across the boat from the right.

"I instantly knew that we were in a lot of trouble. The wave didn't hit gently. It felt like we were in a washing machine."

All three survivors said they knew Shaun Bethune and Mr Cullen were dead when they went blue and became non-responsive during the swim.

Mr Bethune cradled his son before letting him go, Ms Saxton said. Mr Cullen had been swimming between the two women and they made the decision together to release his body, she said.

The bodies of both men were recovered by Coastguard personnel early the next morning.

Maritime New Zealand accident investigator Ian Howden told the inquest it was well known that rogue waves could "come from nowhere" in Foveaux Strait.

After the Kotuku sank in 2006, with the loss of six lives, wave warnings were entered on Foveaux Strait marine charts.

To coroner David Crerar, he said Maritime New Zealand's strong recommendation was for a boat to have on board two means of communication, including a cellphone in a waterproof container or bag.

Boaties should also wear as many layers as possible to enhance their chances of survival, as well as a wrap-around lifejacket, he said.

Mr Crerar found Shaun Bethune and Mr Cullen died of hypothermia. He endorsed Maritime New Zealand's safety recommendations.

"There is nothing we can do to bring back the two who have perished, but we can circulate the appropriate information to hopefully stop this happening again."