What went wrong on the Kaipara bar?

10:35 am on 30 November 2016

Analysis - Crossing bars into New Zealand harbours in rough seas is a treacherous task for the most skilful of boat skippers.

On Saturday, Francie captain Bill McNatty took what one local described as a ''coin toss'' risk - to cross the Kaipara Harbour bar with 10 passengers on board.

The result was deadly. Mr McNatty died along with seven of his passengers as the boat capsized.

Six of the victims of the Kaipara capsizing, clockwise from top left, Tevita Natisolo Tangi, Fred Marsters, Fonua Amanu Taufa (Nua), Taulagi "Lagi" Afamasaga, Sunia Ungounga and Alipate Afeaki Manumua.

Six of the victims of the Kaipara capsizing, clockwise from top left, Tevita Natisolo Tangi, Fred Marsters, Fonua Amanu Taufa (Nua), Taulagi "Lagi" Afamasaga, Sunia Ungounga and Alipate Afeaki Manumua. Photo: RNZ / Supplied

With a series of investigations under way, more details about the accident are emerging. They raise questions not just about Mr McNatty's role, but the rules that govern charter fishing boats and lifejacket use.

Mr McNatty contacted Coastguard at 2pm on Saturday to say he was bringing the 12m fishing boat back over the harbour bar. Locals said he had up to four years' experience in the fishing charter business. He stood to make $900 from the trip - $100 extra to cross the bar.

William McNatty

William McNatty Photo: Supplied / Police

His passengers depended on his knowledge of local conditions, his common sense and knowledge of maritime safety rules.

Those rules require skippers to carry enough lifejackets - and the right type and size - for everyone on board. Lifejackets must be worn in situations of heightened risk, such as when crossing a bar, in rough water, during an emergency and by people who cannot swim.

More experienced skippers than Mr McNatty have got into trouble crossing bars in New Zealand - and flouted the lifejacket rules. Coastguard operations manager Ray Burge guessed they attended about 15 bar capsizings each year.

Reports suggest none of the bodies found after Saturday's accident wore lifejackets. It was unclear if there were enough on board, or whether they were the right size.

Jackson Knight, 18, who helped the three survivors on the beach, said two had lifejackets in their hands, while a third man who came ashore had each arm in a lifejacket.

NZME reported one survivor was too big for his lifejacket so he held it instead and floated to shore.

The ocean swell, which was calm in the morning, increased through the day. MetService meteorologist Thomas Adams said it could have been about 3m to 4m by afternoon on the open ocean. On the bar, where the waves were breaking, it may have been bigger again, Mr Adams said.

It was enough to deter other boaties. The Francie was the only vessel to cross the bar on Saturday.

Tim Jago, from the Muriwai Surf Club, which helped the searchers, told RNZ rescuers saw walls of green water 1km offshore.

"Local knowledge would tell you that things were going to deteriorate. "This boat operator, he would have had the same local and the same forecast that we were all operating to."

The club decided it was too dangerous to send its own boats out.

Onus on the skipper, or failed by lawmakers?

Another Kaipara Harbour boat charter operator, Tony Walles, claimed Mr McNatty was a "cowboy" who took "dangerous" risks.

The Kaipara Cat skipper said he previously warned two Maritime New Zealand inspectors the Francie was an accident waiting to happen, though Maritime NZ would not confirm it.

"Bill was a cowboy ... bloody crazy," he said.

Mr Walles said everyone on board should have worn life jackets, but crossing the bar on Saturday was so dangerous that it was a "coin toss" as to whether the Francie would make it, he said.

The Francie, a fishing charter vessel thought to have got into trouble on the Kaipara Harbour.

The Francie capsized, killing seven men. Another remains missing, presumed drowned. Photo: Francie Charters / Facebook

Others in the industry blame a law change.

The body representing the maritime industry said it told the government a 1997 change to laws governing coastal waters would lead to disaster.

The Marine Transport Association believed the sinking of the Francie proved them right.

Executive officer Margaret Wind said the changes let safety standards slip.

They meant commercial vessel operators without a special coastal masters licence could go into coastal waters where previously they had to stay inside the bar.

Skippers could take their boat up to 50 miles offshore, which was previously banned. They no longer had to carry a life raft designed to float away if the vessel sank.

Ms Wind said the law should not have allowed Mr McNatty beyond the bar in the Francie with the experience he had.

Terry Somers, of Kaipara Cruises, said the rule change should never have happened, and argued Mr McNatty took a "harbour boat" over wild seas.

The 12-metre fishing boat was not equipped to wait potentially days in the ocean until the swell died down. If it was rough at Kaipara, Manukau Harbour was likely to be as bad, Mr Somers said.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission has four investigators looking into the Kaipara incident. Police have promised to assess any culpability of those involved.

Arguably, had Mr McNatty survived, he could have been prosecuted under the Maritime Transport Act (MTA) or the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) if lifejackets were not worn while he crossed the bar.

The penalties are severe: MTA infringements carry up to 12 months in prison and up to $10,000 in fines. Breaching the HSWA can lead to up to five years in prison and fines up to $3 million.

Mr McNatty might have known crossing the bar on Saturday was risky. No-one else did it that day. No rules will stop a cowboy, and Maritime NZ cannot police every inch of water when conditions are rough.

While the passengers should have had lifejackets on, Mr McNatty broke no rules crossing a dangerous bar.

Coastguard has started a bar crossing seminar for boaties in Northland, which it hopes to roll out across the country.

Tighter rules might do better to prevent a repeat.