'Chaotic' scenes on doomed boat

Mark Thomas with the Wendy J, in the Greymouth port in 2013. Photo: Greymouth Star
Mark Thomas with the Wendy J, in the Greymouth port in 2013. Photo: Greymouth Star
The skipper of the doomed Greymouth fishing boat the Wendy J has reported chaotic scenes on deck as the boat floundered in heavy seas while he and his missing crewmen scrambled for lifejackets on Thursday night.

Mark Thomas was swept into the sea at Smoothwater Bay and "somehow grabbed hold of a lifering in the water," he recalled to Westfleet general manager John Brown, after Mr Thomas was plucked to safety on Saturday from near the mouth of Teer Creek, about 8km south of the bay, a narrow and rocky cove around the corner from Jackson Bay.

The search continues for the missing crew, Jay Cairney and Kieran Lynch, both of Greymouth, but was put on hold again this morning due to atrocious weather conditions.

Police said this afternoon the search was continuing using a helicopter and the Police National Dive Squad was en route to assist and was expected to arrive in Haast tonight.

Dressed only in shorts and a t-shirt, Mr Thomas took shelter in a flax bush and drank from a nearby creek while he awaited rescuers, who did not arrive until over a day after the sinking.

West Coast police said this morning they were still treating it as a search and rescue and had been advised there was still a good chance the pair could be found alive, senior sergeant Paul Watson of Greymouth said.

Search teams were waiting for a break in the weather, which had been hampering efforts to search the shoreline.

"The indications are there is still quite a high chance of survivability, if they had been able to get out of the water," Mr Watson said.

Although the liferaft had been found inflated there was no indication the two missing fisherman had managed to use it.

Police had a mix of about a dozen staff and volunteers primed today to continue searching the shoreline, weather permitting.

Haast-based commercial helicopters had also been pressed into service.

They also relied on having suitable volunteers to search the rugged coast.

"A lot of the time they're hampered by what they can do given the ruggedness of the shoreline."

The Wendy J got into trouble while trying to shelter from a vicious storm on Thursday night.

Mr Brown said he knew something was wrong when someone spotted a liferaft but no wreckage.

The Greymouth-based fishing company had two boats operating in the Jackson Bay area at the time, the Te Aroha and the Wendy J.

"I got hold of the skipper on the Te Aroha and asked if they were all right. Sometimes you don't hear from a boat for a day. The boat had been in contact with the Wendy J the night before and they were looking to anchor up at Smoothwater Bay."

He contacted Maritime Rescue Control and they immediately sent a helicopter to search the coastline south of Jackson Bay.

Mr Thomas was rescued from the shoreline and taken back to the nearest settlement, at Neils Beach, from where he rang Mr Brown, who then drove from Greymouth to pick him up.

"Mark was worried about his crew," Mr Brown said.

"He suspected a craypot rope got wrapped around the propeller and stalled the engine. The boat started floundering in the heavy seas and there was chaos on the boat as they scrambled for lifejackets.

"Mark was thrown into the water and somehow grabbed hold of a lifering in the water."

Mr Brown said he believed his skipper was lucky to have survived, but his strong will had played an important role.

"He was just wearing shorts and a t-shirt and was in the water a long time. He sheltered in a flax bush on land and drank water from a creek.

"He was cut and scratched, very tired and cold when I picked him up. His foot was cut and bandaged and he was sore and struggled to walk."

He was taken to Grey Base Hospital and discharged, but yesterday he was readmitted to hospital due to infection.

Mr Thomas had just installed a new diesel engine to his boat which he fishes under contract to Westfleet.

"We feel for the families of the missing crew and just hope by chance they are all right," Mr Brown said.

The Wendy J about to cross the Greymouth bar in July this year. Photo: Greymouth Star
The Wendy J about to cross the Greymouth bar in July this year. Photo: Greymouth Star
Okuru-based police marine search and rescue adviser and long-time local fisherman Kerry Eggeling said narrow and rocky Smoothwater Bay was "notorious" for big seas.

"In the last 10 to 15 years there's been two or three reasonably major incidents there, and a whole swag of near-misses."

Weather conditions on Thursday night and Friday morning had been "horrendous" with wind gusts of about 80kph on land.

The boat made no distress call and did not set off its emergency locator beacon.

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre said the first notification it received was from the aircraft that spotted the liferaft.

Max Dowell, who runs the marine radio out of Hokitika, said that up until 10 years ago fishermen would check in with him morning and night, but they "fell out of the habit" after the radio service transferred to Greymouth.

"Twenty-odd years ago, 40 boats would call in morning and night, particularly in the tuna season."

Now, just five Greymouth boats called in regularly.

Add a Comment