Sole survivor of Manukau Harbour boating tragedy that left three dead describes terrifying experience

The sole survivor of a recent fishing boat tragedy has described his terrifying experience for the first time.

Jame Phan, known as Guitarr, was on board with three others who lost their lives on the notorious Manukau Harbour bar last month.

23-year-old Guitarr had decided to join his dad Mongkhon Wongmongkhon and friends Niveth Boutsady and Udom Roopsom for a day out fishing.

He says his dad loved fishing.

“Very passionate, whenever he finds a day off - or he would find an excuse to have a day off to go fishing. That’s his hobby. They love it. They were born doing it back home in Thailand.”

It was to be Guitarr’s first day crossing the Manukau Bar. He said his dad loved to joke with him about fishing.

“He always joked around, teased me about how I’m not able to handle the waves and whatnot.  So yeah, I just said to him I can handle it - let’s go.”

They headed out on Saturday, October 16 - the first weekend Aucklanders were able to go fishing after some lockdown rules were loosened.

Guitarr - a father of twin four-month-old girls - said conditions were calm and the weather was sunny.

“It was pretty rocky at the bar. I was like 'woah' - I’ve never been on big waves. But I trust these guys. This is their spot; they’ve come here hundreds of times,” he says.

After moving around a bit, they found a good spot.

“Everytime we dropped our bait in, we wouldn’t have to wait a minute - within that minute a fish would hook on straight away and it was decent sized, 5-6kg. After that good day of fishing, we’re just like 'oh it’s time to call it a day'.

"Everyone called their friends, their family members saying 'we’re gonna come home with a big, full container of fish' and yeah we were on our way, pretty happy about our day.”

But as they were making their way back across the Manukau Bar, the motor on their boat suddenly stopped.

“I look back and I see this big wave and we just go with the wave. We manage to ride with the wave.

"So I was like 'OK, we’re alright - we’re alright'. And then a bit of that water came into the boat and we were just holding on. Everyone just held on tight and then all of a sudden as we were going down, there was another big wave coming from the left-hand side. And that’s what kind of t-boned us from the side and kind of like just rolled us over,” says Guitarr.

All four men eventually found themselves in the water, hanging on to a boat that was quickly sinking.

“They’re holding on to the side of the boat. My old man - just one hand on the bar and one hand behind me - he looked after me, he made sure I wouldn’t get washed away. I said 'dad it’s okay, we’ve just gotta stay focused'.”

Guitarr tried to help warn the men when the next waves were coming.

“I did kind of like a team thing where I climbed up and did a pull-up just to see when the waves were coming. So I was doing a countdown - 3, 2, 1 - so once I hit one everyone’s got to hold tight or hold their breath. It’s just so strong,” he says.

Guitarr realised his phone was in his zipper pocket.  

“I’m holding my phone with full grip cause if I lose this phone, I wouldn’t be here today.  I manage to dial 111 but it was quite hard just dialling because my fingers were wet and I’m drowning as I’m speaking. The first call I made, it went through, but the call dropped just 'cause of the service and I was gutted.

"So I reach out for a second time - I manage to hear a lady’s voice - that kind of brought light back into you I guess. At this stage I was just yelling information, just key points, where we are, please come as soon as possible. You gotta send help right now - the boat’s sinking."

Guitarr said everyone was starting to get very tired.

He then heard a chopper in the distance.  

“It got louder and louder and I just look into the sky and see this black dot coming closer and closer. And I was like 'yes, yes' - far out, betrayal. When it turned it hooked a left and went along the coastline.”

"We were just in the water for so long. It just felt forever - just no talking, just hearing waves crashing. I look over to the distance and one of the friend’s is already gone, already passed. He already floated a distance, I couldn’t grab onto him or anything.

"[You're] trying to survive basically and eventually, you know, you’re seeing someone you love with their face down. So I flipped my old man over, just trying to shrug him - like 'hey, get up'.  But his face, there was no more colour. His lips were white.”  

Guitarr says there was a stage where he also felt defeated.

“I said, 'maybe if I just close my eyes, I’ll wake up on the shore… maybe if I do that, I don’t have to go through this'. But then I thought of my girls, that motivated me, kept me going. Also who is going to wave down the helicopter if they come?”

The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust eventually winched Guitarr to safety.

One of the men was also winched but he had already passed away. Two boats with local fishermen picked up two of the other men and tried to perform CPR on them but they weren’t successful.

Guitarr says he’s so thankful to those who saved them.

There were lifejackets on board the boat but only the skipper of the boat was wearing one when tragedy struck.

“I would say wear a life jacket,” says Guitarr.

He also wants more funding for Coastguard so they can get to boats in trouble quicker.

Coastguard chief executive Callum Gillespie says Coastguard is funded through a broad range of services, including central and local government funding and funding from a range of community organisations, corporate sponsors, private donors and supporters.

“We support the call for better funding of our lifesaving work,” says Gillespie.

Guitarr also has a message for his late father.

"I’m gonna stay strong and the rest of the family will stay strong and for him to have his peace, not to worry anymore. He’s in a better place."