'Eerie' feel on board drifting yacht: diver

Missing yachtsman Paul Janse van Rensburg's dog Juanita peers from under a torn mainsail as the...
Missing yachtsman Paul Janse van Rensburg's dog Juanita peers from under a torn mainsail as the Tafadzwa is brought alongside the Waitangi Wharf on the Chatham Islands yesterday. Photo The New Zealand Herald
The missing yacht Tafadzwa, which was found drifting near the Chatham Islands on Sunday. Photo NZDF
The missing yacht Tafadzwa, which was found drifting near the Chatham Islands on Sunday. Photo NZDF

Friends and family of missing Tauranga yachtie Paul Janse van Rensburg are grieving today after the 40-year-old's vessel - missing since March 12 - was recovered near the Chatham Islands yesterday, deserted except for his pet dog Juanita.

"When we initially pulled up alongside, she poked her head out for a bit, but went down below again," said fisherman and diver Floyd Prendeville, of the fishing boat Legionaire, which towed the vessel to shore.

But 17 days at sea - alone on the Tafadzwa as it drifted with the winds and the currents from the East Cape to the Chatham Islands, 749km south east of Napier - had taken its toll on the 2-year-old retriever cross.

When Mr Prendeville approached her, she was timid, shaking and silent.

"She was very wary of me, and then I just pulled her in and gave her a couple of comforting pats, and she was physically shaking, and then she came right.

"Obviously, she was looking for someone.

"I tried to give her a bit of water and she didn't want water, so she wasn't dehydrated in any way."

Somehow, Juanita managed to fend for herself after solo sailor Paul Janse van Rensburg was lost overboard within days of setting sail from Tauranga to Gisborne on March 12.

Mr Prendeville spoke of the unsettling feeling boarding the Tafadzwa, yesterday.

"In all my years of experience, I've never come across a boat with nobody on it, drifting in the ocean, torn sails.

"It was very eerie going on board. I heard about it through talk on the island and I just jumped on board to help out in any way I could."

Mr Prendeville has been involved in three other rescue missions, all involving local fishermen.

"When we pulled up alongside, I don't know what I was expecting.

I was hoping to see somebody, maybe."

But the boat was empty, except for Juanita.

The vessel had emergency equipment, including a small dinghy, still on board.

Most of the equipment was tied to the deck, except the radio, which was hanging down.

Inside, an open container of garlic butter suggested Mr Janse van Rensburg was in the middle of eating when something threw him from the boat.

The butter was sitting next to dishes, next to hanging baskets of slightly blackened bananas, tomatoes and other vegetables.

The only damage appeared to be the two sails, torn and flapping in the steady breeze, and the netting around the deck, which was ripped near the front right of the boat.

Juanita was carried to dry land, and after trotting around the wharf for a while was led to a vehicle and taken to the local constable's house.

On the mainland, Warwick Gowland - a friend of Mr Janse van Rensburg - yesterday said many of his friends would always wonder what might have happened if the search had gone longer or been carried out differently.

"You don't do all you can until you come up with the result," he said.

"Someone pointed out to me this morning that criminals can do something wrong and you think of the amount of money and police resources that goes into finding them, but when it comes back to saving someone's life, we're too easy and too blase."

Friends of Mr Janse van Rensburg were shocked the yacht had been found empty, and wanted to ask searchers to re-check all land masses it could have passed since it disappeared.

"At the end of the day, someone can hold on and can be sitting on a little piece of dirt somewhere and, yes, certainly, partly, it has an emotional pull to it," Mr Gowland said.

But seeing photos of the vessel, with its liferaft and canoe still fastened "didn't make for a good scenario".

"It was quite eerie to look at them [photos]," he said.

Yachting was "a lifestyle" for Mr Janse van Rensburg and messages of support were pouring in from fellow boaties all over the globe.

"He sailed across South Africa and sailed all through Panama and places like that," Mr Gowland said.

"We're getting messages from people all over the world who are saying `I sailed with him here', `I sailed with him there', `I got into great difficulty but we managed to find our way out'."

Yesterday the Chatham Islands' sole police officer, Constable Kane Haerewa, said he intended to have "good look at the boat, turn it over and see what's on there", in an attempt to discover what happened to Mr Janse van Rensburg.

"[I will] Take photos of everything looking for signs of anything more sinister. There might be a note on board or anything like that."

If there was nothing untoward on board, it was most likely that a wave had come over or that a line had broken, he said.

Const Haerewa was unsure how long the examination would take and said he would look after Juanita until instructed otherwise.

Mr Gowland said it was too painful, just yet, to think about who would take Juanita.

She and Mr Janse van Rensburg had been inseparable since he found her in Westport a couple of years back, he said.



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