Capsized yachtie clings to mast

A veteran yachtsman spent two cold, wet hours perched on the mast of his heritage yacht after it hit rocks and sank in the middle of the night.

David Stemson set off from Opua in the Bay of Islands around 2pm on Saturday, with plans to head north and drop anchor off Horseshoe Bay in the Cavalli Islands for the night.

But his 26ft mullet boat, Celox, built in 1908 by Archibald Logan, one of the renowned Logan family, struck rocks and sank off Motukawaiti Island in the Cavallis shortly before 11pm.

Coastguard northern region duty officer Johny Clough said Mr Stemson, a retiree from Coromandel, did everything right from there.

"He made a call, he put a life jacket on before abandoning ship ... He was safe and well, [with] no injuries. He was just cold and a little bit wet."

When the Whangaroa Harbour Coastguard crew arrived around 1am, they found the "very old and traditional style sailing yacht" had already sunk. Only sails were visible.

Mr Stemson swam to the rescue vessel and was taken to Whangaroa Harbour, where he stayed the night.

He described the Coastguard as brilliant. "They found me pretty much straight away. They were absolutely excellent. One of them took me home for a hot shower and tucked me up in clean pyjamas in bed and gave me some dinner."

Mr Stemson said that after the capsize, he clambered up the mast and perched on the spreader, shining his torch on the sail for his rescuers.

He blamed the topographical map he had for showing a "totally insufficient outline of what was there".

"In fact, I sailed into a minefield of small rocky islands, which just weren't clear on the map at all.

"I think it's a significant short-sight of the hydrographic department. The minefield was indicated to be further north; it was actually further south."

He also blamed a lack of lighting on the east coast of Northland for his misadventure, but conceded he did not have sonar or an electronic GPS system on his yacht.

"I had charts and good experience, but I hadn't actually been through that channel before."

He had owned Celox for around three years and was planning on salvaging it today. "I absolutely love the boat ... I'm wanting to get that boat up and to get it floated to somewhere where we can put some solid patches on it and make it seaworthy."

Celox was not insured and Mr Stemson said he was unsure what the repairs would cost. "I'll do a lot of the work myself. It should be an interesting labour of love.

"It'll be quite seaworthy as a patched boat because the rig and all of the sails and all of the ropes and cordage are all in good order -- nothing got wrecked. It's just a leak, although it might be a biggish leak."

He declined to say what the vessel was worth. "It was a particularly fine design and type of boat. I raced it in the tall ships recently and won the mullet boat class quite well."

Mr Stemson, a self-described "experienced sailor", said he had been sailing since he was a child. "I swam three miles in the Whangaroa Harbour when I was 8 years old for my parents to trust me in a yacht."

Saturday's sinking was not Celox's first. Almost a century ago, on March 14, 1921, the yacht was taking part in a race to Waiheke when it capsized. The owner and his son, 5, drowned.

- Brendan Manning and Patrice Dougan of NZME. News Service

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