Foveaux StraitPhoto: LAWRENCE SMITH  

Into the Black

The Easy Rider tragedy

It was one of New Zealand’s worst ever maritime disasters. Eight people drowned. Only one survived. Here, using never before reported material, the full story of the Easy Rider is finally told.


He awakes alone in the black at 12.03am. He does not look at the clock but he knows the time. He cannot see their faces but he knows who they are. The silhouettes surround him in silence. He is not afraid. He closes his eyes and remembers their story. It is his too.

He remembers the taste of salt, the smell of gasoline, the constant slap of water against his skin. He remembers what absolute loneliness feels like.

He will say he was ready to die. He will say his entire life led up to the moment when he decided not to.

There were nine, including him. They had set out together on a boat called the Easy Rider. The only difference in their story is that he is alive and they are not.

Fisherman's Wharf
Fishing boats at Fisherman's Wharf.

The harbour

The strait spat grey and cold as Rewai “Spud” Karetai made his way across Fisherman’s Wharf. There were supplies to be organised and bait to be loaded but to some who saw him he seemed preoccupied. His fishing boat, the Easy Rider, was tied up along with dozens of others that bobbed on Bluff Harbour’s ebbing tide.

It was one of the few safe inlets in the Foveaux Strait but entering it was still a challenge. Its waters moved swiftly and its winds blew strong. There were rocks that lurked beneath the surface. When boats finally reached the passage between the mainland and Stewart Island they were often faced with bruised clouds and white-capped waves. This was Southland – the bottom of New Zealand where State Highway One peters out. But according to signage on the roadside, Bluff and its population 1824 people, really marked the “beginning of the journey”.

Karetai had bought the Easy Rider only six months earlier and he was proud of it. Most of his life had been on fishing vessels. The sea was his playground, friends said. It was in his bones. He had spent 30 years as a deckhand, helping run ships around the southern edge of the country but the Easy Rider was different. He and his wife Gloria wanted to be their own bosses and to run their own commercial fishing operation. The Easy Rider would be the first boat Karetai would ever captain.

On March 14, 2012 Karetai spent the morning loading up stores – 2.1 tonnes of ice and 360 kilograms of bait.


Maritime New Zealand safety inspector Gary Levy was on his way to audit a nearby vessel at Fisherman’s Wharf when, just after lunch, he stopped by to inspect the Easy Rider.

Levy was there to make sure Karetai’s boat met “safe ship compliance”. The Easy Rider had been privately owned for many years and for Karetai to use it commercially several standards had to be met.

It needed a lot of work. But the most essential element was someone in control who held a skipper’s certificate. Without it the 42-year-old, 11 metre boat would not be permitted to carry any passengers.

While it was Gloria’s name on the ownership forms, Karetai had run the Easy Rider largely by himself. Several deckhands helped out occasionally but in six months Karetai had already gone through seven different men. He had a reputation for being hard to work for and not someone you could easily tell what to do.

Rewai Karetai
Rewai "Spud" Karetai, skipper of Easy Rider. Photo: DOUG FIELD

He also had not completed his own skipper’s certificate which required him to pass courses in, among other things, boat stability. So since purchasing the boat he had used his only qualification – a deckhand certificate.

Levy asked to see a full copy of the licenses. Karetai started to look around the boat. Then he rang his wife and put her on speaker phone. Was his skipper’s ticket in a cupboard, he asked. It wasn’t, Gloria said.

Then Karetai told Levy he would need to go home to look for it.

Levy tried to complete the inspection but he thought the whole thing was “turning into a farce”. The weather was closing in, the forecast was not looking good and from what Karetai was telling him Levy thought there was no chance of the Easy Rider leaving the harbour.

MetService warned of 35 knot winds. The seas would become rough for a time with a swell rising to four metres.

If Levy knew Karetai was thinking about leaving, he later told a court, he would have detained the vessel.

As Levy left, a truck driven by two of Karetai’s relatives Paul Karetai and Peter Bloxham, pulled into the port. It was carrying stores and materials including plywood and corrugated iron sheets.

Wood was craned up and lowered onto the Easy Rider. The vessel listed heavily to one side. The crane then repositioned the load until the boat appeared to be stable.

At 5pm, David Hawkless, a fisherman with 50 years experience in the Foveaux, passed the Easy Rider on his way back into the harbour. Hawkless thought he wouldn’t want to take a boat out with that much gear on it. He would tell his wife that night that the Easy Rider seemed low in the water and that it was “dangerously overloaded”.

He did not know, however, that there would be other people, more weight, coming aboard.

Easy Rider loaded
Easy Rider on the day it left Bluff

Later that day, about 7.30pm, deckhands Shane Topi and Dallas Reedy arrived. Karetai called them “eight” and “nine” – the latest men to work for him. They loaded fuel tanks and filled the fresh water barrel.

Reedy was number nine – a solid man with a greying goatee. Originally from the North Island’s east coast, he once played rugby league for Southland. Reedy bounced around fishing jobs, from Tasmania to Antarctica, before joining Karetai on the Easy Rider. He knew Karetai for years and he knew how to handle him. If he was “in a mood” Reedy would just move to the other end of the boat to let him calm down. It was hard work but Reedy trusted Spud.

The planned trip was to take some of Karetai’s relatives out to the Titi or Muttonbird Islands – an archipelago at the bottom of Stewart Island. They were to go hunting for muttonbirds, also known as young sooty shearwaters, which nested there. It was a tradition passed down to local Maori for generations. Karetai would then continue on to fish before returning to pick up the passengers. They would all return to Bluff together.

Paul Karetai and Peter Bloxham had arranged that week for Rewai to take them down to the islands. But soon after other family members arrived at the harbour. Every one of them aside from Reedy were related.

Gloria thought her husband might have felt some pressure to help them out with the expensive eight-hour boat trip. Whatever the reason, Boe Gilles, John Karetai and Dave Fowler all came aboard. The deck was so tightly packed that Reedy and Topi could only access the sides of the load by standing on the boat's outer railings.

Then, Paul Fowler-Karetai arrived with his seven-year-old son Odin.

Fowler had not planned on making the trip but thought that it would be just a few days. He jumped aboard. Odin started to cry and pleaded with his father. He wanted to go too.

“Come on dad,” he said.

“Nah, sorry son.”

The boat was ready to go. Reedy and Topi had lashed down the loads and were making moves to cast off. At the last moment, Fowler-Karetai changed his mind.

“Come on then mate, hop aboard.”

Odin grinned. Reedy thought the boy looked cold so he put a small black lifejacket on him.

“This will make you look cool,” he told him.

At about 8pm Karetai fired up the boat’s four cylinder diesel engine. As the vessel manouvered away from shore someone on the opposite quay noted that there was already water sloshing onto the deck.

Karetai called Bluff Fisherman’s Radio and told them he was heading to the Muttonbird Islands but did not say in which direction. For some reason he also said there were only seven people aboard.

“Good as gold,” the message came back from the radio’s longtime operator Meri Leask.

Then Karetai steered the vessel through the channel before turning west and out into the strait.

Greenhills Cemetery memorial
Lost at Sea memorial at Greenhills cemetery. Photo: ROBYN EDIE

Shipwrecks and the strait

The anchor sits just off State Highway One before the road winds its final journey towards Bluff. It is thick and rusted and embedded in red brick. It is introduced with words from Psalm 150 – etched into the face of a granite slab.

“Out in the depths I cry to you O Lord.”

Around it are brass plaques with names and dates and flowers. It is a memorial to those who have been lost at sea. There is Arthur Fisher, the beloved husband, father and skipper of the Golden Harvest who was lost in 1968. There is Roger Burgess, lost off the Cygnet in 1985, Basil Mortimer lost at sea off the Skagen. But long before the memorial was created or those men lost, ships have foundered in the Foveaux Strait.

It takes only 12 minutes for a storm to manifest itself in the waves. The strait sits at the pressure point between the Mariana Trench, where seas belch up from 10,000 metres deep, and the 6000 metre deep waters summoned from around Cape Horn in the other direction. They collide in the 40 metre shallows of the Foveaux.

The strait turns, say Bluff fisherman, into a washing machine. The prevailing weather is westerly but the tide runs east to west. When they hit each other, even in no wind, the water will just “stand up,” says local coastguard president Andy Johnson.

“These are waves with nothing on the back of them. They are just walls of water.”

They turned over cargo carriers and passenger vessels that arrived in Bluff during the 19th century when it was just an outpost built on trade. The local museum houses an unofficial honour roll of sunken ships. In glass cases are salvaged materials of broken pieces of wooden hull and never drunk bottles of stout beer.

At least 125 boats have gone down since 1831. At least 74 people have perished but the real number is not clear. It is still ticking over. Six years earlier, in 2006, another boat, the Kotuku, was on its way back from the Titi Islands after muttonbirding. The tradition stretched back to before the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi where the right to continue the trip was enshrined. Families of Rakiura Maori, who had direct blood lines to the early chiefs of Stewart Island, held that right in perpetuity.

They knew the strait as Te Ara a Kiwa or the pathway of Kiwa – an ancestor who, according to legend, asked a whale to create a passage of water by eating through the land. Crumbs that fell from the whale’s mouth became the islands in the strait – including the Titis.

Muttonbird Island
The rocky shore of the Muttonbird Islands.

There was something about them that drew those ancestors back. It was a link to their past when muttonbirding was vital for trade. In the early days Maori would travel by paddle-driven waka. Then came motorised boats. More recently helicopters were enlisted to help lift stores off the boats and onto the islands. But this meant most materials had to be secured on the deck rather than in a hold.

For three months every year the islands could be inhabited. Families each had their own “manu” or area which they hunted and makeshift houses grew there over the years. Different family members would bring down wood and supplies to build onto them.

muttonbirders hut
A muttonbirder’s hut on the Titi Islands.

Some had television and internet but the focus was fishing out the birds, which burrowed into the peaty surface of the island, with sticks with hooks on the end. The birds’ greasy meat was considered a delicacy and a rarity.

Through generations, it remained one of the most isolated places in the country.

The islands are special, Andy Johnson says. They have a feel about them and a certain sweet smell. Local Maori are vigorously protective of what is still, for many, a rite of passage.

On that day in 2006, before the Kotuku made it back to Bluff, the boat was swamped by a wave. An investigation found it was unstable and overloaded. Six people drowned. Three others managed to swim to a nearby island.

Those waves have even turned over normally stable twin-hull catamarans which is where, three months before setting out on the Easy Rider, Rewai Karetai came to intimately know the dangers of the strait.

It was January and he was sleeping in a tent on Ruapuke Island which sits in the middle of the Foveaux. His wife woke him at 10.40pm. Gloria was sure she could hear someone in the water. It was loud and the wind was flapping at the tent. She must be mistaken, he told her. Gloria was adamant. So Karetai got up and looked out to the sea. He could see something bobbing on the waves. At first, he thought it could be a cardboard box. As his eyes adjusted he could see it was something else – a lifejacket. Then he heard voices.

They belonged to two women who were holding up another man – Barry Bethune. Karetai rowed out in a small dinghy. He knew they would all try to clamber aboard which would have spilled every one of them into the water.

Barry Bethune
Barry Bethune, who was saved by Easy Rider skipper Rewai Karetai. Photo: DOUG FIELD

“You climb into this dinghy,” he said. “I’m going to hit you with this oar.”

Bethune, the boat’s owner, had been looking the other way when the wave hit. He felt the boat getting picked up and tipped over. The other passenger said all she saw was a “wall of water” – two or three times bigger than any other they had seen that day. There was no time to react. It was known as a “rogue wave”.

By the time Karetai began rowing the trio to shore two others, including Bethune’s son, were dead. Karetai was sure his father was going to die too. “Don’t give in now,” Karetai told him. “I’ll club you with this oar.”

Simple things could have saved them all, Karetai told a reporter after the ordeal. If only they had checked in with Meri Leask to let her know when they were going out and when they expected to be back. If only they had a cellphone and plastic bag to keep it from getting wet. A $2 bag would have saved them, he said.

“You need to respect Foveaux Strait. If you don’t respect it, it will kill you.”

On the boat

It was midnight and the Radio New Zealand broadcaster began announcing the day’s headlines. The Easy Rider was punching into the tide as it neared the north western point of Stewart Island. It bounced over waves and slid over their tips before slamming down onto the ocean below.

Dallas Reedy looked over to the two others on deck and laughed to himself. Under a quarter moon Boe Gilles and Pete Bloxham were faring badly. They opened a box of beers and starting sipping on them, hoping to calm their stomachs. Dallas had a few too and started to relax into the evening. There was little room on deck so he settled against two blue plastic water barrels. It was going to be a long trip, he thought.

Rewai was at the wheel alongside Dave Fowler. Next to Karetai was an emergency indicating radio beacon. Once activated it transmitted a global positioning message to 100 metres accuracy. If it was above water, satellites could pick up its message and relay it to the Rescue Coordination Centre that managed all ocean emergencies around the country. But to work it had to be switched on manually.

The other deckhand, Shane Topi, had already gone down into the cabin below to sleep. Two months earlier, the first time Reedy met Topi, he asked him if he liked the water.

“I hate it,” Topi told him. “If I fell over I’d probably freak out and freeze.”

Reedy had seen Karetai on television after the tragedy with Barry Bethune became national news. Reedy called him up and asked for a job. He started the next day. Paul Fowler-Karetai and his son were also inside. Reedy thought young Odin looked like he was having the time of this life.

The news bulletin was wrapping up.

“That is your headlines to three minutes past midnight,” the announcer said.

Then Reedy heard it. It sounded like a jet engine. It was a roar from the starboard side. He could not see it coming but within seconds he felt it. The entire deck was swamped. He heard Odin scream and then nothing. The water was up to his waist. Then the Easy Rider heeled back and over. In an instant it was upside down and pots and ropes were all around him. Reedy went under. He flailed and tried to grab a rope. All he was wearing was a yellow and blue stormline jacket, track pants and boots. As soon as he hit the water his boots and pants were sucked off.

The sea temperature was 13 degrees. An adult male wearing a lifejacket could be expected to survive for up to five hours before succumbing to muscle fatigue, cramps and hypothermia. But without a life jacket, in the cold, Reedy thought he was going to drown.

He fumbled around him for anything to help him stay afloat. He managed to get ahold of a rope that was attached to the boat. The waves pulled him around, slamming him into the side of the hull. It was slippery and barnacled like a whale but he knew he had to stay out of the water for as long as possible.

He clambered aboard and wedged himself between the propeller and the rudder as waves continued to crash over him. It felt like death was coming for him.

There was no moon. No stars. Only the boat’s light still attached to a battery. After 15 minutes it went black. Then came the cold. He looked around and could see no one. He banged on the hull with his fists hoping to get a reply from those who were in the cabins. He yelled. There was nothing – only the sound of the ocean.

The Easy Rider’s dinghy was still tied up – only metres away. But if he didn’t reach it or if he could not unleash it, Reedy thought he would likely drown. So he sat on the hull, occasionally getting up to squat to get his blood moving.

Two hours past. He knew he was alone. Then came another sound. It was a wooosh. It was like a last, dying breath, Reedy thought. It was the air escaping from the boat. Then the Easy Rider tipped vertical and began to sink. He positioned himself on the back of the boat. Then, when the water was up to his knees, he stepped off into the black, the dinghy still tied to the Easy Rider, the light from the emergency locator beacon still attached in the ship’s wheelhouse, both slowly sinking and fading beneath him.

Aerial search
Police conduct an aerial search for items from Easy Rider. Photo: JOHN HAWKINS

The search

Chris Green scanned the scene at Big South Cape. It was a perfect day in the Titi Islands. The sea was a green calm and the sun was shining. The helicopter pilot was there to help lift muttonbirders’ loads from their boats and onto the islands. It was a job he had done for many years for various families. That morning, however, something did not seem right. One of his clients was not there. He radioed the Easy Rider to find its location but there was no answer.

Then he radioed his office in Te Anau to see if they had received a message from Karetai’s wife. Green had spoken to Rewai a few days earlier and suggested he might want to postpone the trip because the weather was not looking good. Karetai told him he was going fishing after stopping at the islands and would not put it off.

But when Green arrived he could not see the Easy Rider. He thought maybe Karetai had changed his mind. Green’s office rang Gloria who told them that the boat left as expected the previous evening.

Meri Leask
Radio operator Meri Leask.Photo: LAWRENCE SMITH

At 3.25pm he radioed Meri Leask, who had voluntarily manned the fisherman’s radio for more than 30 years. She was already at the Bluff police station on another of her volunteer jobs. She informed the officers there and, in a notepad, logged an overdue vessel.

Green refueled and then started a coastline search. Perhaps they had stopped in a cove to get some sleep. Perhaps the Easy Rider had broken down somewhere along the way. He spoke to the other skippers who made the trip, one who told him that the boat had been having engine problems. But none of them had seen the Easy Rider.

“There was no reason to think anything had gone wrong,” Green said.

But as he went further up the side of Stewart Island he was running out of places where Karetai might have stopped. Then, as he came round the last corner of the island’s north western tip, he noticed a discolouration in the water. Green hovered closer to the surface. He could smell it – diesel. It was bubbling up from below. Close by were plastic bags, plastic petrol cans and finally, a cabin door.

It was 5pm. What none of them knew was that the boat the door belonged to had gone down almost 18 hours earlier.

Leask transferred to Invercargill Police Station, a 15 minute drive away, where a search management team was being organised. An emergency message went out to vessels in the area. Fishing boats and ferries all lent their services. None of them expected to be paid for their work – they did it on the understanding that one day it might be them being looked for.

Rhys Ferguson was just finishing work at the port when he heard his pager go off.

“Missing vessel, Foveaux Strait area,” it read.

The 29-year-old had belonged to the Bluff Coastguard for seven years after a friend encouraged him to volunteer. Usually when a message like that came through it was serious. He knew the strait was not forgiving. The seven metre coastguard boat was only a short drive away – tied up close to where the Easy Rider had set out from. Ferguson was the first there. He opened his locker, grabbed his thermal suit and life jacket and made preparations to leave. Soon three other volunteers were onboard including veteran coastguard skipper Bill Ryan. When the message went out, coastguard president Andy Johnson called him to tell him extra details.

“If it’s in Big South Cape we aren’t going,” Ryan told him. “Our boat would get down there but it won’t get back.” The weather was picking back up. If the wind had been only five knots stronger they would not have gone at all. The first priority was the safety of their volunteers.

They did not know about the diesel slick that had been discovered to the far west. So when they got out of the harbour they headed straight for Stewart Island.

Coastguard rescue boat
NZAS Rescue Coastguard boat leaving to search for Easy Rider. Photo: ROBYN EDIE

In the water

He is alone in the black. There is nothing about him. He can barely see a metre. He believes he is about to die.

Almost immediately it pops to the surface – a 20 litre red, plastic petrol canister. Nothing else. If it was a little further away he would not have seen it. He slides his fingers through the grip and holds on tight.

Dallas Reedy has been in enough cells by himself to know what exactly an hour is. He can feel it. He believes two have gone by since the wave hit. The boat has just disappeared below him. It is 2am.

The morning. If he can make it to morning then that is his best chance. Did Spud get a mayday out? Did anyone get out? He knows nothing but he knows the water. He spent most of his life in it. He learned to dive near here – getting in the ocean with great white sharks that returned to these waters around Stewart Island every year. He knows they are out there. He looks down to his hands. His knuckles are bleeding. For a moment he panics. He flails and tries to pull his legs into his chest. He wills himself to be calm. He wills himself to breathe.

He has been cold before. He was in the army in Waiouru – a tank commander in the bitter winters forced to stay overnight inside the freezing steel. More than once he fell victim to hypothermia. You do that a few times over the years and you learn about your body.

In the dark he has no reference point. He does not know where he is. He puts the boys that were aboard the boat out of his mind. He has to. He can’t think about them. He has to survive.

He thinks back to his two sons at home snuggling into their beds, no idea that their father is out in the ocean fighting for his life. He wants them to know that he is. The thought keeps him alive.

Hold on, he tells himself, don’t let go. Hold on. Don’t let go.

He sees things in the water. Millions of them – they sparkle and twinkle in the night. The bioluminescent marine life is the only light he has seen in hours. When he splashes his hand the light disappears. Even out here with all this death, he thinks, there is life.

He is not hungry. Only thirsty. The water slaps against him and tries to force itself into his mouth. He spits and sputters and tries to force it out. His stomach is cramping. He keeps passing stool. Each one more painful than the last. It feels like his body is shutting down.

He thinks about his life. His early days putting in fence posts on the east coast of the North Island. His time in the army and how it gave structure to a kid who had known little. He remembers when he left and the mistakes he made. He remembers the assault on the taxi driver that put him in prison. He remembers meeting Spud there. He remembers playing rugby league on the concrete where inmates would try and smash his teeth out in every tackle. He remembers inmates hanging themselves in the cells next door.

He remembers wanting to turn his life around and do the best for his kids and his wife. He remembers moving to Southland. All of it, he thinks, has led to this moment.

He slips beneath the surface of the ocean. Below him he sees rainbows of colours that remind him of when he fished near Antarctica and saw the Aurora Australis painted across the sky. It is beautiful, he thinks. The hours tick by.

The sun finally hauls itself over the horizon. Dallas believes it is 6am. It looks like the world being born, he thinks. It hits his skin. Finally, he feels warmth. He has lasted the night. Now, he tells himself, someone will find me.

His tongue is swollen. He cannot swallow. The salt water he has been spitting out is seeping into his body.

The waves slap on his jacket. Slap, slap, slap. It is constant. Slap, slap, slap. JUST F****** STOP! He shouts into the open air.

The ocean does not listen. He tries to concentrate. He looks about him. All this time, land has only been about 3km away. He cannot see anything else, only land. He has to swim. He moves to take off his jacket. He slides his arms out and lays it flat on the surface. He hopes it will be a signal to helicopters or planes that will come looking for him. Just before he lets go of it he thinks back to a television show he watched once about survival. It was hosted by former special forces soldier Bear Grylls who told his audience to use everything about them to survive. Just before he lets go of the jacket he pulls out the drawstring from its hood. The jacket floats for a second. Then it sinks into the sea.

Dallas ties the string around his wrist and around the petrol canister’s grip. Hold on. Don’t let go.

He awakes beneath the sea. His vision is blurry through the water. The string saves him. He bursts to the surface and into tears. I am dying now he thinks. He passes another stool. It is black.

He has to move. He starts swimming, pushing out the cannister with each stroke. It tires him. He stops and ties the string to the elastic of his underwear. He starts for land again. Forty minutes pass. He looks up and sees he is no closer. The current is holding him still. He tries again but each time his energy is drained and he starts to shiver. He looks back to the the sun. It is dipping. He has about four hours. He knows he can’t fight the current. He knows he can’t make it another night.

He begins to sing. Anything at first – songs from the 60s and 70s – the Eagles, Dire Straits. He recites hakas – war challenges he learned as a boy at boarding school. He tells himself jokes. He makes himself laugh. He talks to the petrol canister. He has named it Wilson, after a Tom Hanks movie he once watched. He feels like he might be losing his mind.

He thinks Wilson is too heavy. There is liquid still inside. Maybe if he can pour some out it will float better. He unscrews the lid like a man defusing a bomb. He begins to tip it out but does not realise how much is still inside. The gasoline pours all over his face and into his eyes. He is blind. He grips the lid in his fist. If he loses it, he will die. Carefully, he screws it back on and begins to say goodbye to everyone he has ever known. Strangers, friends and family – he wishes them all a long life. He begins to say hello to everyone he knows who has already passed over. He says he will see them soon. He is calm.

He tries to untie the string from his wrist and wrap it around his neck. He wants to keep his head above the water. If he is going to die he wants his mother to be able to have an open casket funeral. If he sinks beneath the water he knows the sea lice will eat his eyes first. But his hands are too cold. He cannot undo the knot. He tugs at it and rips his underwear off. Naked in the ocean, he fears the sea lice might want to eat something else too.

Then he sees a plane flying high above him. He tries to wave, he tries to scream. It passes by.

When the sun had come up he felt so much hope. It gave him warmth. Now, he can feel it turning on him as it skulks back over the horizon. I can’t fight anymore, he thinks. He says goodbye and closes his eyes. He has done enough. He has done enough.

Then he hears it. Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. He looks up and locks eyes with a spectacled young man on the back of the boat who speaks words he will never forget: “SURVIVOR IN THE WATER.”

rescue map

The rescue

Rhys Ferguson
Rhys Ferguson, the volunteer Coastguard rescue crewman who heard, then spotted Dallas Reedy in the water.Photo: ROBYN EDIE

Rhys Ferguson gripped the steel bar outside the coast guard boat wheelhouse. The swell had picked up in the strait. The vessel launched off waves and crashed into the sea. It rocked and rolled. Fishermen who occasionally came aboard during searches would say they would never do it again. The boat was getting to the end of its lifespan and was too small to deal with some of the strait's dangers.

The volunteers were nearing the middle of the strait when the call came through that they should head toward the diesel slick. They turned west. Ferguson leaned over the starboard side, trying to keep an eye out for anything. It was not an easy task – he did not even know how many people were missing. If there was someone out there in the water it would be the size of a football. That would have to be spotted while hurtling across the waves at 25 knots.

They had been traveling toward the slick only for a few minutes when Ferguson thought he heard something – a faint sound that made him turn his head. About 100 metres away, slightly behind them he saw it. It was after 6pm and the sun had almost disappeared but Ferguson knew there was something out there. It was a flash of red. He told the skipper inside to move towards it. Then he locked his eyes, raised his finger to point and did not waiver.

For years he had practised man overboard drills. He had helped recover bodies of those who drowned in the Kotuku tragedy. He was only 21 back then and the experience had fazed him. He was older now and he knew the job well. He would not drop his hand until the boat was right on its target.

His eyes were blood shot. He looked cold. The target was shivering and nude. It took three of them to haul him aboard. His weight dropped onto the floor of the boat.

“Take me to the engine room,” Dallas Reedy said. It was 6.11pm.

He wanted to put himself against its warmth but there was no such room on the boat – just the two outboard motors. Instead, the skipper Bill Ryan took off his thermal suit and wrapped Reedy in it. They tried to wrench his grip from the petrol canister. It was clamped on. He did not want to let go.

Reedy could barely move. He was hypothermic but to his surprise he could still feel the cold. His body was not numb. Reedy was a master diver and had certificates in everything from body recovery to free diving. When he went hunting for shellfish he hardly ever wore a wetsuit – even in winter.

The volunteers started asking him questions: When did the boat go down? How long had he been out there? How many people were aboard?

Reedy could hardly speak. But from what they learned it was not sounding good. Did he see anyone else get off the boat? Reedy hadn’t. But still, Ferguson thought, if they had found one alive, perhaps there were more.

“You are still hoping,” he said. “But you know the chances of finding someone else alive is pretty slim. It’s not very often the Foveaux will release everyone.”

Reedy was choppered to hospital by Chris Green, who had first sparked the search. Police organised the logistics around getting all the fishing vessels into position. They lined up in parallel lines. The coastguard was at either edge to maintain structure.

Search pattern
The Foveaux Strait search area with the Navy boat Resolution in the foreground.Photo: ROBYN EDIE

The Rescue Coordination Centre, based out of Wellington, organised the pattern using data like the winds and tides. As more information was gathered and more debris found the search area tightened.

At 8.30pm, the first body was found.

The navy ship HMSNZ Resolution was on its way to a training exercise in Fiordland, about 150km away, when it heard an emergency signal come over its VHF radio. Lieutenant-Commander Matt Wray responded: “We are on our way.”

It arrived at about 11pm. Taking police and coastguard staff on board, it formed the centre line of a nine-strong search fleet scouring the darkness. Crewmembers used searchlights and sonar equipment to detect objects beneath the water.

An oar was found at 12.19am, a blue duffel bag was found at 3am. At 4am the search was suspended but the Resolution, accompanied by Bluff fishing boat the Awesome, carried on searching through the night.

Body ashore
A victim from the Easy Rider tragedy is brought ashore at Bluff.Photo: NICOLE GOURLEY

By 8am the Resolution’s sonar had found what appeared to be a hull. It was 40 metres deep and lying on its side. Awesome's crew lowered a camera down and confirmed it was the capsized boat.

A navy dive team was deployed from Auckland in a Hercules aircraft. They took with them specialist dive equipment and a portable decompression chamber.

At 12.45 another body was found. There was no lifejacket. Another was found 10 minutes later. Again, no lifejacket.

The navy dive team entered the water and dove down to the boat. They traced the outline of the hull – the words EASY RIDER clearly visible through the turquoise murk. The liferaft was still onboard. A mattress was jammed against wheelhouse door. The divers was pushed it aside but the whole boat was empty except for a single, little black lifejacket. It was Odin's. The emergency beacon was still flashing.

The legacy

Marama Karetai-Bloxham
Marama Karetai-Bloxham, widow of Peter Pekamu-Bloxham.Photo: JOHN HAWKINS

The paua shell lay on a coffee table in an Invercargill home. It was surrounded by photos – of Boe Gilles, Shane Topi, John Karetai, Paul Fowler-Karetai and his son Odin. Rewai Karetai was there too – all staring out from the frames. The ashes of Peter Bloxham were at the front, a mesh All Blacks cap hanging off a small white box. His wife Marama still had not scattered them. She did not know where to put them. She thought about taking him back to the Muttonbirds but maybe she wanted him close. She was meant to go back to the islands this year but felt it was not the same anymore. Boe, Peter and John would go every season. Now the place felt different.

She and dozens of other family members had waited at Bluff’s shore during the search waiting for good news. But as it dripped in it became clearer. Aside from Dallas, the only one not related, none of them were coming home alive.

Dave Fowler was never found. Odin was never found. Paul was never found. Rewai Karetai was never found.

Easy Rider victims
From left: Peter Bloxham, John Henry Karetai, Boe Taikawa Gillies, Shane Topi, Rewai Karetai.

It had been almost two months since a judge imposed a fine of more than $200,000 on Gloria Davis and the company that owned the Easy Rider. It was ruled she caused or permitted the Easy Rider to be operated in a manner causing “unnecessary danger or risk” to people on board and that as a director of the company which owned the boat she “acquiesced or participated” in the failure of that company to take all steps to ensure that no worker was harmed aboard the boat. She was also convicted of operating the Easy Rider knowing a skipper’s certificate was required and not held.

Gloria Davis
Gloria Davis in court.Photo: NICOLE GOURLEY

Gloria dabbed her eyes with a tissue as the victim impact statements, all of which supported her, were read to the court. Families of the deceased had not wanted reparation, so no order was made, Judge John Strettell said.

Davis told the court she accepted her responsibility but was “too emotional” to say anything else. She stepped outside the Invercargill courthouse, took a breath and made a statement.

“When you have no control over the farm or the boat or the business, you should really remove yourself from the director role.”

For Marama, the case had brought it all back. Peter was not meant to be on the Easy Rider. He was supposed to leave with her the following week. Her children were going to join him but they decided not to. There were still so many questions. How long were they in the water? Were they in pain?

The questions weighed on Rhys Ferguson too. It was pure luck they found Dallas Reedy. If they had been told to head straight to the diesel slick then they would not have seen him. But if they had done something different could they have saved more?

When Gloria walked from the court feelings were mixed. Hadn’t she suffered enough? Why punish her even more? But still, others said, she had broken the law and justice had to be seen to be done.

And already there were signs the Easy Rider’s legacy would not be forgotten. It was the largest search and rescue operation in Southland. There was 240 hours of helicopter flying time, 15,000 man hours and almost than $400,000 spent by police. If the fishermen and volunteers had billed for their petrol that number could have been close to $1 million, district police commander Inspector Lane Todd said.

It was the greatest loss of life at sea since the 1968 Wahine disaster where a ferry capsized near Wellington killing 53 people.

Andy Johnson, the coast guard president, said people were more strict with life jackets now. Especially with children. The trip to the Titi Islands would continue to be made, he said. People just needed to make sure lessons were learned.

“Everyone still remembers the tragedy and the trauma and the loss,” he said. “It stays with you. Hopefully that will keep the pressure on that we need to be more and more careful.”

There had been talk of a memorial to those who died on the Easy Rider. For a time friends and family wanted something to go at Stirling Point at the far tip of Bluff where the road ends and the water begins. But then, after some conversations, a new idea was born. The coastguard boat that plucked Dallas Reedy from the water was old. There had been fundraising for a new, modern designed boat for years. It was agreed – the funds should go towards that. It would be a living, working memorial to them. It would be on the ocean. It would help save lives.

Two months later he goes back. He has been to hospital and heard people call his story a miracle. He has appeared on television and been in magazines. Now it is quiet and he wants to see the boat once again. It is 40 metres below the ocean.

He glides through the wheelhouse and into the cabin. It is bare. Everything has been sucked off the walls – clocks that were screwed on, lashings around the handrails. Drawers empty. The ocean has stripped it clean. He swims outside, pulls out his knife and thinks about making his mark. Perhaps his his initials: D T R. Then he digs the knife’s tip into the hull. He carves a simple message: “Dallas was here.”

On his left arm is a tattoo. It starts at his wrist and flows up to the image of a Maori warrior on his shoulder. Boe Gilles did much of the work. He left a gap on his forearm. For a long time Dallas did not know what to put there. The day he came out of hospital a tribute to those who were lost was inked into the empty space.

Helicopters still shock him. The sound of outboard motors still jog his memory. He still keeps the petrol can in his bedroom. He still calls it Wilson.

Dallas Reedy
Dallas Reedy, the sole survivor from the Easy Rider with Wilson, the fuel can which he clung to in order to save his life.Photo: ROBYN EDIE

Even now, more than two years later, he will awake at 12.03am – the time when the wave hit. Six months ago he awoke to see the dark outlines of all those who were lost on the Easy Rider. They surrounded his bed. He looked around and saw all of their shapes, all of their heights. They did not scare him. He thought they must be worried about him. Then he went back to sleep.

His story is now his family’s story. He wants his sons to know what he went through and what he did to come back to them. He wants them to know the blood that runs through his veins is theirs too – Ngati Porou – warrior blood.

He is does not believe himself to be an exceptional person but now understands that if you push yourself exceptional things can be done. His initials are D T R – Dallas Tuamoana Reedy. Tuamoana: “He who stands steadfast in the sea”.

A memorial message to the Easy Rider found washed up on Scarborough beach, about 500km from Bluff.Photo: JOHN BISSET

This story is based on hundreds of pages of documents including court files, Transport Accident Investigation Commission reports and coroner's inquiries. Fairfax Media gained access to never before seen material including audio recordings made by the commission in the disaster’s aftermath and logbooks from the search. The reporter spoke with key members of the search team including joining them on their vessel when they trained in the Foveaux Strait. He extensively interviewed the only survivor, Dallas Reedy, and family members of the victims. Scenes and dialogue not observed by the reporter were taken from information and direct recollections from these sources.

Words: Charles Anderson. Web: John Harford. Fairfax Media.