At least one body has been recovered as hopes fade for eight people, including at least two young children, missing at sea tonight after a fishing vessel capsized in the Foveaux Strait.
One of the nine people from the vessel, the Easy Rider, was found alive by rescuers tonight – after 18 hours in the icy waters between Bluff and Stewart Island. One body was reportedly found tonight.
Bluff Community Board chairwoman Jan Mitchell said she had been informed a body was found at 8.15pm.
Mrs Mitchell said the tragedy brought back memories of the Kotuku accident in 2006, when six people died.
“It’s all just bringing back awful memories of the Kotuku, which was such a dreadful accident for our town.
“It’s such an innocent look ing piece of water, but it can be so deadly.”
Mrs Mitchell said anybody who could be on the water looking for the missing would be.
“I know that any number of boats will be out there look ing for them, because that’s what our community does.”
The skipper of the missing vessel, Rewai Karetai, saved the lives of three people in a similar situation on the same stretch of water in January.
Mr Karetai, 47, set off from Bluff at about 8pm on Wednesday night, bound for Stewart Island on his boat Easy Rider.
He and eight others – all related to each other and including small children – were heading out muttonbirding Big South Cape Island, west of the southern tip of Stewart Island.
The vessel was supposed to reach the island by 2pm today, but did not make it. A massive search was launched and rescuers pulled one survivor from the water but had not located the Easy Rider late tonight.
Mr Karetai was hailed a hero in January when he towed three exhausted people from the strait in his dinghy after their fishing boat sank.
He was camping on Ruapuke Island, which was otherwise deserted, with his wife Gloria when they heard noises about 250m off shore.
Mr Karetai rowed out in the darkness to rescue Southland farm manager Barry Bethune, 46, and two women in their forties, who had spent more than five hours in the water after their vessel capsized.
Last night his aunty Jill Karetai said the family went mutton-birding every year. This trip was the first of many he was set to take for the season.
She said the whanau had gathered Bluff Harbour and waved them off on Wednesday night.
“It’s horrible because we know there’s some babies [young children] on board and two or three or four at least of my brother-in-laws and nephews – it’s just dreadful,” she said.
Jill Karetai’s brothers-in-law Peter Bloxham and John Karetai were on the boat. She said police had told the family the person pulled from water had been wearing a lifejacket. They also said there was an oil slick on the water.
“I don’t even know who it was who they’ve pulled from the water. It’s an absolutely terrible, terrible time,” she said.
“I’m in shock. I’m shaking. We’re just waiting and praying that they’ll all be okay. But we don’t know, we just don’t know nothing. It’s horrible.”
She said the tragedy was especially “dreadful” because of Mr Karetai’s heroic effort in January.
A source in the Bluff boating community said tonight rescuers had started to “find bits” that had come off the boat in the strait. He saw Mr Karetai, known as Spud, just before he left Bluff.
“The conditions out on the strait were pretty atrocious,” he said.
“They probably shouldn’t have gone. I’ve been in the business for 45 years and if anyone would know it would be me. I saw the boat before he left. Personally, I wouldn’t have gone out of the harbour.”
The source said Mr Karetai’s rescue efforts in January were admirable.
“And now he’s in the same situation himself …” he said.
After the rescue Mr Karetai told the Herald he spotted a man hanging off the anchor rope on the front of his boat, anchored 250m off shore.
“As I got closer to the boat, the next minute there were two ladies who popped out the back of my boat. (Mr Bethune) had already given up, basically. I think it was more the shock of having his son die with him.
“He kept drifting in and out of consciousness, and I was scared that we were going to lose him.”
As he rowed frantically to shore, towing the trio, he urged a fading Mr Bethune to hold on.
“Don’t f***ing think you are going to give in now, mate. I’ve got you. You are going to survive this,” Mr Karetai told him.
“Those people were just so blessed that we were right there, or they would never have got found at all.”
Mr Bethune’s son Shaun Bethune, 23, and best mate Lindsay Cullen, 59, did not survive the icy waters. Mr Karetai said he was gutted he could not save them.
Once back onshore, Mr and Mrs Karetai got the hypothermic trio into dry clothes and lit a fire to warm them up, before raising the alarm.
Tonight members of Mr Karetai’s extended family were rushing to Bluff. One posted a message on Facebook to update the rest of the whanau.
“Rewai boat’s missing I’m heading to bluff,” Tawhiri Karetai wrote.
“Whanau don’t fret I will keep everyone posted when I get more news. They haven’t been able to contact Spud. Kia kaha for those on the boat.”
– nzherald.co.nz with Otago Daily Times
By Amelia Wade and Anna Leask