Coastguard urges sandbar safety after Kaipara tragedy


In light of yesterday's tragedy in the Kaipara Harbour, the Coastguard is urging skippers to think more carefully before approaching sandbars.

Nicknamed 'The Graveyard', the Kaipara Harbour sandbar is incredibly difficult to navigate and a notoriously treacherous stretch of sea.

One wrong move, and it can be all over in a flash.

"It's quite dangerous - there's a lot of water that runs through it," says Coastguard operations manager Ray Burge.

"It's one of the biggest harbours in the Southern Hemisphere, so there is a significant amount of water that runs through it, so it is quite a dangerous one."

Sandbars are tricky at the best of times; in 2011 one boat was lucky to escape the Greymouth sandbar, coming dangerously close to capsizing on entry.

Experts say bar crossings hold the highest risk for boaties.

There are two golden rules to remember; the shallower the water, the higher the wave - and always point the sharp end of the boat into the danger.

But while boaties often struggle on the Kaipara bar, they're not being told to avoid it altogether - just to weigh up all the factors before crossing.

"It depends on your level of experience, it depends on the capability of your vessel," says Mr Burge.

"At the end of the day if this is the activity you're going to do, there will always be the first time that you go out, but you just need to prepare for that."

Skippers are encouraged to log a bar crossing report with the Coastguard so they can monitor where they are and when they are due back.

The Francie logged that report on Saturday afternoon, and requested a 60 minute watch from the Coastguard.

The Graveyard is responsible for more shipwrecks than any other place in New Zealand, claiming at least 43 vessels.

And Kaipara locals know the risks all too well.

"I've got a wee boat myself, and we're always checking the conditions. If you go over the bar, you've got to know what you're doing," says one local.

New Zealand's worst maritime disaster also happened on a west coast sandbar when the HMS Orpheus sank outside the Manukau Harbour in 1863, killing 189 men.

With at least seven lives lost this time, the message from the Coastguard is clear; know the conditions and wear a life jacket.

A simple message that could help prevent further tragedy.