Wednesday, 26 September 2018

WHITIANGA WEATHER

The demise of the Yellow Fin retold

By Jack Biddle

This story was put together with the help of the late Roley Chaney, his wife Ngarie and Dot Clatcher the daughter of one the survivors of the wrecked Whitianga-based launch Yellow Fin which went aground in Mercury Bay in 1968 (50 years ago). Excerpts from the original Mercury Bay Search and Rescue Unit report and clippings from both the New Zealand Herald and The Auckland Star were also relied on.    

It was the morning of 18 April 1968 when the 35ft game fishing launch Yellow Fin skippered by well-known and experienced local fisherman Gordon “Stumpy” Chaney (the brother of Roley Chaney), aged 41, departed Whitianga for Great Mercury Island. 

Gordon was well respected in fishing circles, with the president of the Mercury Bay Game Fishing club, Mr M Cruickshank, later describing him as, “A valuable club member, a fine chap and a pillar of the club."  

The Yellow Fin was launched in December 1966 and was the first concrete commercial fishing launch in New Zealand. It was from her that a Mrs L M Langton caught a record size 510lbs broadbill late in January 1968.         

 On board the Yellow Fin that day in April were close friends Dorothy Sewell of Mill Road, whose husband was a cousin of the skipper, and Louise Rivas of Coopers Bay.  A spot of fishing was part of the day’s agenda before Gordon headed to Great Mercury Island where Robert “Robbie” Hooker was waiting to be collected. Gordon had dropped the 21-year-old mechanic on the Island the previous day to carry out work.  

The Mercury Bay Search & Rescue Unit would later report that they had verified from Great Mercury that the Yellow Fin had left Great Mercury Island at around 16:30 hours that afternoon to head back to Whitianga in what was described as choppy but not overly rough seas. Their scheduled return time was reported as 18:30 hours, but sadly neither the launch nor its skipper would make it back home while an extreme battle for survival was awaiting the three inexperienced passengers.

It was reported that the launch had moved close to shore to avoid the brunt of a severe electrical storm that was passing through the area accompanied by strong south-east winds. 

After around 30 minutes into their trip, the skipper had asked Robbie to take over the steering and to follow a set compass course while he went on deck to store the anchor rope and batten down the hatches. It was the last time the passengers were to see Gordon alive. After a frantic search they came to the conclusion he had disappeared overboard and the stark realisation that they were left on their own.

In reports that followed, the young and inexperienced Robbiestated there was an initial and understandable state of panic on board before a decision was made to mount a search for their missing skipper. While he didn’t know what the exact compass bearings were, he turned the compass round a half circle and steered the launch in that same figure.  Unfortunately, time and weather was against them. As the Yellow Fin made a desperate search for its lost skipper, the weather and darkness closed in with visibility quickly fading to zero.

While the crew believed they were well clear of the land and scrambled mayday calls on several different frequencies were being sent out continuously, the launch was in fact very close to the Whau Whau reef and soon hit an outcrop of rocks without warning. The wreckage was later discovered on Lion Rock by the launch Marlin, skippered by a Mr AD Clow. 

What followed was a huge act of bravery from the youngest of the three survivors. “My Mother [Dorothy Sewell] always said if it wasn’t for Robbie, they would not have survived the ordeal," says Dot Clatcher. "His courage in getting Mum and Louise off the launch and onto the rocks initially and then battling huge seas going back to the Yellow Fin for blankets and a mattress to provide shelter before moving them to higher ground, was an unselfish act of true bravery. Mum and Louise said Robbie should have received some sort of special recognition for his efforts years ago,” says Dot.

Louise Rivas would later say the ordeal, “Was quite horrible and just a jumble of frightening events." 

When the Yellow Fin went aground, it was dark and pouring with rain and once the survivors made it onto the rocks, they were unsure of where they actually were. It was only when the moon came out briefly and Robbie spotted a passage of water through the rocks to a nearby beach, did they start to get their bearings.

It would be around 4:00am, however, before the tide had dropped sufficiently to allow them to successfully attempt the crossing to the beach. From there it was on foot in a desperate effort to try and make contact with human life and to let people know about their missing skipper. 

In the meantime, the Mercury Bay Search and Rescue Unit had begun a search after the Yellow Fin was reported as being overdue and after repeated failed attempts to make radio contact. The mayday calls from the launch had also alerted search organisations along the coast, but they were unable to identify the distressed boat. The initial search began with one launch (the Marlin) but was soon followed by at least four more, plus an aerial search.

Wreckage was spotted from the air in the Whau Whau area by air around 7:30am on 19 April. The pilot also noted that the surf was heavy and a land search was soon underway. Footprints on the beach reported by the Marlin indicated people had walked off the beach.

At 9:20am a search party made up of Thames Valley Electric Power Board men met the three survivors who reported the Yellow Fin's skipper as missing.

The air and sea search continued over a wide area and included a Navy survey vessel.  The bulkhead of the Yellow Fin complete with wheel attached was retrieved during the sea search. 

On 20 April while the search continued for the missing skipper, the Marlin managed to salvage the motor and some other gear from the broken wreck of the Yellow Fin.

Ten days after the Yellow Fin went aground, the sea give up the body of her skipper, Gordon “Stumpy” Chaney.

Roley Chaney told The Informer just days before his own passing, that there was a lone dolphin spotted patrolling the bay where Gordon's body was discovered. When the body was removed, the dolphin disappeared but a single dolphin reappeared when Gordon's ashes were spread a short time later at the same bay. He has also pointed out to us that the family later discovered Gordon had a heart condition and the cause of him falling overboard was a result of a heart attack. 

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.