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This is an edited version of an article I’ve written for Pacific PowerBoat magazine.
The public in general and the boating community in particular were stunned bythe tragic loss of five fishermen from the vessel Enchanter which capsizedoff Northland’s east coast onthe night of 20 March.
At this early stage many details are still not clear, butthey will surely emerge as investigations are carried out by the Transport Accident Investigation Committee, Maritime NZ, Police and possibly WorkSafe. However some information is availablefrom media reports, particularly from NZ Herald and Stuff.
Enchanter is one of three rugged vessels operated by Enchanter Fishing Charters, established by skipper Lance Goodhew in 1995 and who according to their website are“the Three Kings specialists”. She is a twin diesel engine powered 17 metrevessel designed by Erwin Hagg for deep sea fishing and constructed from glassed over double diagonal kauri with a displacement of about 30 tonne.She wason a five day fishing charter out of Mangonui to the Three Kings Islands, a group of 13 small islands located about 30nm NW of Cape Reinga in an area where the South Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea. Despite their remoteness and reputation for strong currents and rapidly changingconditionsthe Kingsare regularly visited by fishermen and divers taking advantage of anabundance of fish lifefrom snapper to marlin. Overnight anchoring options are limited and regular visitors say that even a good night can be uncomfortable.
Enchanter is certified and skipper Lance Goodhew is qualified and highly experienced, reportedlyhavingspent 250 days each year at sea for the last 20 years. He withone deck hand and ten clients were already aboard Encounter at the Three Kings when a weather warning was issued by MetService on the morning of Saturday 19 March. Due to the reputation ofthe vessel and her skipper those aboardhad every reason to feel safe although one client, Mark Sanders,did mention reservations about the weather to his family prior to departure.
After some great fishingEnchanter headed back to the mainland on Sunday to complete her charter on schedule.Having owned, managed and skippered a 12 metre Oliver Royale charter vessel in the Hauraki Gulf myself some 15 years ago I can say there is some pressure to stick to the charter timetable because clients generally want to get home on time, a new charter awaits for which the vessel needs to be prepared, refueled and provisioned and there is often some maintenance to do.
Presumably the most challenging part of this trip would have been across the open waters between the Kings and the mainland, but Enchanter reached the mainland safely in early evening – Mark Sanders phoninghis wife around 1800hrswith no concerns expressed. As Enchanterpowered her waysouth towards overnight shelter she would have had the NE wind and breaking season her exposed port beam or port quarter. The tragedy unfolded when Enchanter activatedher two emergency beaconssouth of North Cape at about 2000hrs. It is believed the incident happened too quickly for any radio contact to take place.
Maritime NZ initiated a full response includingWhangarei’s Northland Helicopter Rescue, Auckland’s Westpac Rescue Helicopter, a RNZAF P3 Orion aircraft, the RNZN vessel Taupo and Houhara Coastguard. Two charter vessels over nighting at the Kings, Florence Nightingale and Katrina also left for the search area. Apparently some other local vessels also responded. After refueling in Kaitaia the Northland helicopter arrived on scene about 2340hrs. By the time fivesurvivors were located and rescuedin two groups near Murimotu Island, south of North Cape they had been in the water for about 4 hours. Apparently they had been located from lights visible in the water as they desperately clung on to a large pice of floating wreckage.The daring pilot with 30 years experience, Lance Donelly, reportsthere was a fierce storm in progress and that this was “the most extreme, most challengingrescue I’ve ever done”.
The remaining five were unable to be found and their bodies recovered later.
Cluesto Enchanter’s fate come from a survivor who had been in the cockpit at the time of the incident later reporting“nobody was to blame. It was a freak wave that came out of nowhere” and from Lance’s mother who reports her son told her they were hit by a gigantic wave over nine metres high. The wave’s force ripped off Enchanter’s flying bridge and capsized her.
Metservice estimates the wind would have been averaging 35 knotswith 2.5 metre waves at the time of the tragedy and if correct this hardly seems conditions that would cause many problems for a well found 17 metre vessel such as Enchanter, let alone rip her flying bridge off and capsize her. However Metservice’s assessment of conditions appears at oddswith those reported by thehelicopter pilot (fierce storm in progress) and by Florence Nightingale’s skipper who reports “absolutely horrendous” conditions with 55 knot winds. With such a wind out of the NE with a long fetch it is likely the waves would have been well in excess of 2.5 metres, quite possibly with average waves in the vicinity of four metres or more. However this is my opinion, not known fact.
NeverthelessMangonui Harbour Warden Steve Smith says “the Enchanter had been in similar conditions many times before with no issue ……. it has to be a freak accident.”
So the question is – is it feasible for a wave around a frightening size of nine metres to occur?
The answer is absolutely yes.
As wave trains roll across the oceans, the peak of one wave eventually synchronises with the peak of another, and the resulting wave can be much larger than either of the two waves that coincided.
The UK’s National Oceanography Centre determined that about one wave in 23 is twice the average height, one wave in 1,175 is three times the average and one wave in 300,000 is four times the average. Of course such waves are not only large but generate tremendous energy. Fortunately the largest of these monster waves are rarely encountered because they appear quite suddenly in a small area, possibly something like 50 to 100 metres long and lasting only a short time before dissipating.
Most marine tragedies result from a series of eventsand in this case they appear to be severe weather conditions, an unexpected large wave, darkness, heavy rain and spray causing poor visibility and remoteness from rescue resources.