Continuing Bruce Goodwin’s account of the sinking of the yacht Essence off the east coast of Northland in October 2019, and the crew’s rescue.


As planned, the first thing we did after jumping off the sinking Essence was link ourselves with our safety tethers so we wouldn’t be separated. The shock of cold water literally took our breath away.
Then an incredible thing happened: an enormous albatross landed right beside us. Having this big bird sitting not much more than an arm’s length away was amazing. It had a long, hooked beak that looked powerful enough to rip me apart, but its head looked aristocratic and wise, caring and compassionate.
I am a Christian, and it suddenly filled me with confidence that I was exactly where God wanted me to be. From then on it didn’t worry me whether I should live or die: it would be God’s plan for me. I didn’t see the albatross leave, but I don’t think it stayed long.
Despite that sense of spiritual calm, the first minutes in the water were, physically, extremely hard. Breakers were crashing over us and I took in a lot of salt water, with a lot of coughing and spluttering. I knew I had to do better. Making a conscious effort to close my mouth and breathe through my nose, I gradually got my breathing under control and adjusted to the temperature.

We tried huddling together for warmth, but it didn’t work for me. I was being held deeper in the water than I liked and it made it harder to breathe without taking in water. Eventually I excused myself from the huddle and settled into floating on my back with my head into the waves, the PLB stuck in the cleft of my lifejacket. That seemed to work best.

Huge, breaking waves washed over us, tumbling us around as in a washing machine. Once we were pushed deep under water. I held my breath and hugged my lifejacket, knowing it would eventually bring me back to the surface.
To begin with we talked a little. I remember thanking Pamela for her wonderful cooking, although I’m not sure she heard me. Despite the conditions, she had produced a gourmet breakfast that morning. Steve’s lifejacket was deflating and we needed to sort out his manual inflating tube. His lifejacket had auto-inflated during the rollover, and probably developed a leak in the process.
We knew the first sign of rescue would be a P3 Orion aircraft. From his experience in the Defence Force, Steve calculated the time before the plane would be overhead, factoring in the pre-flight checks and the flight time from Whenuapai. I thought his calculations were optimistic, and I mentally prepared to swim through the night.
Gradually the talk died away, and time went fuzzy-wuzzy for me as we settled into the wait.

(Royal New Zealand Navy Photo by Petty Officer Chris Weissenborn).

At some stage I remembered there might be a hand-held VHF radio in the grab bag, so I unzipped a small opening and poked my hand in to feel around. Eventually I found it. Unfamiliar with the brand, I handed it to Stuart. He called and a reply came back quickly, confirming that an Orion would be overhead in 10 minutes: our first positive news. Steve’s calculations had been pretty accurate.
The sight of that big, grey, four-engine plane roaring past will remain with me forever. I raised my hand and yelled “You beauty! We’re going to make it!”
It passed about 200m away, flying very low, and I was sure the crew had seen us. We didn’t see it again for about five minutes, then it returned. This pattern was repeated four or five times, and I heard Stuart say on the radio “When are you going to drop the life raft? We’re getting very cold here.”
On one pass they dropped a floating smoke flare about 100m away. All this time I’d presumed they’d spotted us, but Steve hadn’t seen them wave the wings, and he was unsure. They got Stuart to do a count-down on the VHF to help them get our position. When it flew by Stuart would call over the radio “Now, now: on your port side.”
They were apparently getting our position from my PLB, but because they were flying so low the signal was cutting out as we sank into the troughs. Eventually, the Orion flew past very one, but none of us thought of it, or even remembered they were there. Perhaps hypothermia and fatigue diminished our mental capacities.
The Orion disappeared, then moments later a very long rope (about 100m) with flags attached came floating down. This is what we’d been waiting for: although I couldn’t see it, I knew there was a life-raft attached to the end.
I struck out swimming for the rope as fast as I could, but soon had to pause for breath. At first it looked like an impossible task, but I kept swimming, resting and swimming. I had no idea how the others were getting on behind me. Each time I rested I could see the rope being blown off the waves, then coming back down onto the water a little closer to me, which was encouraging.
I felt good when I eventually got hold of the rope, and I started pulling myself along it as fast as I could. In the distance I could see the life raft. Initially it wasn’t too hard to make my way towards it, even though the other three were tethered behind me. They must have been pulling too, and the wind must have been blowing the raft towards us.

(Royal New Zealand Navy Photo by Petty Officer Chris Weissenborn).

But the raft then drifted past us, still some distance away, and the pull from it being driven by the wind was tremendous. Just holding onto the rope was all I could do. I locked my hands on, knowing it might be my only chance of survival. I had no idea how the others were getting on. I was focused to the max.
Now and then the pull on the rope would ease when, I presumed, the raft dipped into the troughs and out of the wind. This enabled a little more progress. Then the pull would come on again, and I’d have to hang on with all the will I could muster. Then the pull would ease again, and I’d make a little more distance. The search and rescue operation (SAROP) report indicates that it took at least 21 minutes between my reaching the line and getting into the raft. It was certainly the hardest physical battle I’ve ever tackled.
Loops of webbing ran along the raft’s side, with arrows pointing the way for boarding. It was another milestone to put my hands on the webbing, but as I started to work my way around to the boarding position I could feel a tangle of people, rope and equipment behind me. I could only get partially up the boarding slide before I was totally stuck. Our tethers were too short, and the strain on my tether to Steve would not let me go any further. Eventually, by turning my body 90o and entering the raft feet first I was able to get myself three-quarters of the way in.
To get in I had to release my tether. It wasn’t a snap-shackle type hook, and it was quite difficult to remove, but eventually I freed it and got into the raft. I then tried to help Steve in. I pulled on the tether, then on his lifejacket, but it seemed I was going to pull the lifejacket off him. I even pulled on his head until he yelled at me to stop. Despite the effort I was only able to get him half-way up.

The only option left was to release the tether connecting him to Pamela and eventually Steve was aboard. Pamela and Stuart were alongside in a tangle of the life-raft’s rope and the line connecting the dan buoy and life ring.
Breakers were crashing through the raft. The wind howled and the raft’s unzipped sides flapped wildly. It must have been very noisy, but I have no memory of the sound. I thought we’d be blown over like tumbleweed at any moment and was worried that we no longer had tethers attached to the raft or each other.
We focused on Pamela and Stuart: I helped Pamela – Steve helped Stuart. Pamela was floating on her back, one hand on a webbing handle. Her eyes were open, but her face showed little expression. Waves were washing over her but it didn’t seem to bother her. Her face was blue-grey. That moment became the epicentre of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I’ve since experienced.
I talked to her to try to keep her fighting, but she was mostly unresponsive. She was tangled in ropes, and the dan buoy rod was stuck on something under the raft.
I pulled at her lifejacket, but she slipped through it and her head went under water: she was too firmly anchored to the tangle under the water. Nothing I did seemed to help. I yelled at Steve: “What’s the plan? I can’t get her in.”
His reply was much the same as my question: “What’ll we do? What’s the plan?” I didn’t know.
After that, we settled for supporting them as best we could. All I could do was hold Pamela’s head out of the water a little. Fortunately, we weren’t in this position for too long: the SAROP report suggests it was probably a little more than 20 minutes. Then something made me look up, and I spotted a helicopter. I yelled at Pamela “Hang on! There’s a helicopter here. It won’t be long now.” There was no sign that she could hear me, and I just kept on holding on to her.

Soon I spotted the rescue swimmer in the water, being dragged into position by the helicopter’s winch cable. He was wearing a wetsuit with goggles, flippers and a yellow helmet.
Steve indicated that he should take Stuart first: no doubt Steve’s military training helped him to recognise who was faring worst. The swimmer cut Stuart and Pamela free, and the raft, propelled by the wind, quickly drifted away from them. We could see the helicopter hovering over them in the distance, and eventually I saw Stuart and the swimmer being lifted with a trail of ropes under them.
The swimmer had lost his knife and hadn’t been able to clear all the rope. This, I learned later, gave them an anxious moment because of the risk of the ropes getting tangled around the tail rotor. The winchman cut the ropes clear before swinging Stuart aboard, and the swimmer went straight back down for Pamela.
This gave Steve and I a little time to take stock of our situation and we started zipping up the sides. The raft – a 10-person model – had an inflatable framework over the top that supported the zip-up sides. It felt like the Hilton compared to swimming in the water. I could have survived there for some time with the sides zipped up, cutting the wind away from us. But we didn’t get much time to enjoy our new home.
I kept one zipper open to watch for our rescuers. I soon spotted the swimmer 10m away, but the raft was drifting fast, and he couldn’t get to us. He was a very strong, fit young man, but he, too, was pushed to his limits.
He was lifted into the air again and repositioned beside us. He got aboard and chose me to go next. I gave my PLB to Steve, while the swimmer placed a lifebelt around me. In an instant we were pulled from the raft and dragged through the water. I remembered to keep my mouth shut and thinking “I’m in his hands now: I don’t have to struggle. Just go along for the ride.”
We were soon beside the helicopter, and practised hands swapped carabiners over and swung me aboard. I was totally drained. For a few minutes I couldn’t even lift my head. Someone told me to move to a seat. I couldn’t – someone lifted and belted me into it.

It wasn’t long before Steve was swung in, and the smile on his face was precious. The side door was closed, Steve was belted into a seat, and we settled in for the flight to Whangarei. We were nine aboard, with not much space between us.
I looked at Pamela. She was wrapped in aluminium foil thermal blankets and very pale, but she managed a small smile, and that meant so much to me. Between us was Stuart, wrapped in a tarpaulin. I couldn’t see him, so I started to clear a small area around his face. I needed to get a smile from him, but a crewman waved me away. I didn’t understand what he was telling me, so I tried again. Again, I was waved away.
I just could not believe he had died. Just minutes before, alongside the life-raft, he’d been talking to Steve. He’d held onto Pamela the whole time in the water, and never let her go until they were alongside the life-raft. He’d been so close to making it home.
Many wonderful things have since been said about Stuart, all of them true, but what remains with me is his devotion to Pamela right to the end. The last thing we heard him say was asking Steve, alongside the life-raft “Where’s Pamela? How is she?” What a love story!
We landed on a sports field. I learned later the Orion flew above us to see that we made it in okay. Ambulance people came into the helicopter and took Pamela. Someone asked if I could walk. I said I’d try – and found I could walk quite well with someone holding my arm. They took all my gear off – lifejacket, harness, wet weather gear and wet clothing – then wrapped me in bubble wrap and thermal blankets before lying me on a stretcher in the ambulance. Steve was with me: I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him talking on his phone.
I began shivering uncontrollably. Until then I hadn’t felt particularly cold after recovering from the shock of entering the water, but I was told my body temperature was a bit low. “You’ll be all right now, mate,” said the cheery ambulance officer. “You’re shivering: that’s your body warming itself up.”

Staff at Whangarei Hospital checked us over and worked to restore our core body temperatures. Sharon Beck from the Whangarei Town Basin Marina office kindly brought brand-new clothes for each us so we could leave the hospital with dignity. Her thoughtfulness was much appreciated.
Steve and I were discharged from hospital about 10pm into the care of my niece Pam Locke and her husband Conlon, who live in Whangarei. I didn’t sleep well that night, waking up occasionally, shivering and tearful.
But the hugs, the talking into the night, the dram of whisky and the joyful welcome from my little grand-nephews and nieces in the morning, were just what I needed as I started to get to grips, emotionally and psychologically, with what had happened. Pamela stayed in intensive care overnight but has since made a full physical recovery.

Although our physical recovery periods could be measured in hours or days, the mental and psychological recovery takes longer. Pamela lost a devoted husband – Steve and I a good friend. We’d stared death in the face ourselves. We’d been soaked, chilled, cut, bruised and exhausted and had swallowed lots of salt water.
We’ve experienced PTSD in different ways. Steve’s and Pamela’s experiences are their stories to tell, or not, as they choose. As for me, with the right help and the love and support of understanding family and friends, and my Christian faith, I am recovering. I’ve found it helpful to talk and write about it: this article is an adaptation of a personal memoir I’ve written, partly as therapy.
And sailing is still my happy place: I would hate anyone reading this to be put off sailing or pursuing their dream of an ocean passage. Prepare well, and you’ll be amazed by what you can deal with.
Finally, may I publicly thank and pay tribute to the wonderful people who willingly flew aircraft and drove boats into a howling gale to rescue us, putting their own lives on the line to rescue us: their skill and bravery are remarkable and to be treasured.



Since Essence’s loss I’ve reflected long and hard on what we did right and wrong, or could have done better, before, during and after the event. I share my thoughts and conclusions in the hope that it might help prevent, or at least mitigate, accidents like ours.
Central to these issues is that Essence did not hit anything solid: all the damage was done by water. We under-estimate the power of the ocean at our peril.

Was the boat fit for purpose?
I’m not going to express an opinion on this point, but offer a few reflections.
Essence, a Bavaria 47, was a purpose-built cruising boat. She’d coped well in 20 years of cruising the world but met her match in conditions not uncommon in New Zealand waters. She was certainly very well-equipped and had been sailing beautifully right up to the roll-over. So why did she sink?
There’s no simple answer, but design might have played a part. Cruising yacht design is often a compromise between speed, manoeuvrability, comfort and safety. A fast, easily-manoeuvred boat requires light weight and a relatively flat bottom, and a fin keel or similar.
A cruising boat that will handle large seas, preferably on auto-pilot, requires a heavier displacement and a longer keel, and perhaps a rudder post on which to hinge the rudder. But such boats are slower and less manoeuvrable, so designers – no doubt influenced by buyers’ preferences – often compromise between the two.
Similarly, to have a pleasant, airy feel down below requires large windows, but small windows better withstand the impact of large bodies of water, and of boats being thrown on their side or roof. Again, compromise is often the result. Essence was the central-cockpit version of the Bavaria 47, with much bigger cabin windows than her aft-cockpit siblings.
I’m no expert on yacht design, but I know my own experiences. I own a Pacific 38 called Vara, a yacht of moderately heavy displacement, with a three-quarter-length keel and a rudder post.
On Vara I can confidently use the auto-pilot in all conditions. This means that being knocked down, mast into the water, can happen multiple times a day in conditions like those we experienced. Vara has always righted herself relatively unscathed. Essence, with a wider, flatter bottom, reached her tipping point more quickly, and probably stayed over longer, than I’d have expected with Vara.
Although auto-pilots can break down or be damaged, they don’t get tired, or suffer lapses of concentration and vigilance, or make errors of judgement. But because of her different hull, keel and rudder design, Essence couldn’t be sailed on auto-pilot in storm conditions, so we steered, leaving us potentially at the mercy of our own fallibility.
Questions I expect the Maritime NZ investigation will address include:
• Were the windows’ size and strength rating within the specifications recommended for NZ Category 1?
The windows were larger than those on most cruising boats, but I understand they’d recently been fitted with specially-strengthened glass
• Why did the windows burst outwards, as my crewmate Steve Newman swears he saw?
• Did the cabin roof have the structural strength to withstand being dropped into the sea?
• Why did the forward hatch, which was locked shut, burst open?
• Was the boat’s design suitable for offshore cruising?
Did we heed the weather forecasts?
Yes. We departed Fiji when the forecast for the next several days was favourable, and so it proved.
But a crew preparing for a long ocean passage doesn’t often have a choice of weather beyond the first few days, nor is there always a nearby sheltered anchorage. So a boat on a long passage must be capable of sailing in all conditions.
To illustrate the point: I had sailed that same passage about 14 times in the previous 20 years, and on three or four of them I experienced winds stronger than 45 knots. I once experienced winds of more than 70 knots for 11 hours.

Were we sailing appropriately for the conditions?
This question encompasses issues such as speed, course, sail choice, tactics and precautions.
At the time of the incident we were broad reaching at 7 – 8.5 knots with a small staysail and a third reef in the main. I was pleased with the boat’s speed, and quite happy that we weren’t sailing faster than we/she could handle. I honestly don’t believe boat speed was an issue.
We’d been hand steering for some time and held course well, steering diagonally across the line of the waves. As larger, steeper waves approached we would steer more downwind, to take the waves across the stern if they broke. This worked well.
I’ve been asked why we hadn’t deployed a sea anchor, or drogue, to slow the boat down. We felt our speed was under control. Drogues also reduce the helm’s directional control so that the boat sails predominantly downwind. We needed to avoid downwind sailing to avoid being forced on to the coast.
Overall, I think we were sailing the boat very well.

What worked well?
• Preparing for the bad weather – knowing a big blow was imminent, we prepared well before the worst of it hit. This certainly made things far less traumatic than they might have been, and included the following actions:
setting the storm sails before the wind increased to storm force; dressing well with warm clothes and wet weather gear before going on deck
• Eating well and keeping hydrated – I’m sure the good breakfast I had before I went on deck that morning, the sweets that Pamela gave us every 30 minutes, and the chocolate and water she got us to gorge on just before we jumped into the water, helped to save our lives.
On a related topic, in my experience leaner people become hypothermic earlier than heavier folk, even if they’re fit, and their crewmates need to keep a close eye on them. Steve and I were more heavily built than Stuart and Pamela, and we fared better.
But I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from our case because other variables were, or might have been, in play. For example, Stuart and Pamela had been on deck since about 3am, while I’d had a good sleep, so exhaustion might have been as big a contributory factor in Stuart’s death and Pamela’s close call as anything else.
• Double tethering – when Stuart and I were in the cockpit we connected second tethers to our safety harnesses. Our main tethers went down to a jackline in the cockpit floor, and the second to the windward jackline. While moving around the boat we could move one tether while staying connected with the other, and at roll-over it meant we didn’t fall too far. This worked well when I went aft to clear damage, and at the roll-over.
• Setting up an hourly radio schedule – Pamela set this up on her own initiative, anticipating the bad weather. But skippers should order it as part of preparations for bad weather in case it gets overlooked among the myriad of other tasks that need to be done.
This meant that, although we were unable to provide a precise position at sinking, Marine Operations Centre had the information it needed to calculate it to within a small radius: our last known position, time, course and speed over ground. Tell the shore station how many people are on board, so that if necessary, the rescuers know when they’ve got everyone.
On a related note, on my own boat I’ve sometimes been the only person who knows how to operate the radio and make emergency calls. After this experience I am making a point of training at least one other crewmate in case something should happen to me.
• Using a satellite tracking app – Essence had Iridium GO! Although it didn’t actually play a part in our rescue, it might have. It enables people on shore to follow a boat’s progress on a smart phone or similar via a satellite link.
My wife Elaine was following us at home and noticed that it stopped working about the time of the sinking but thought nothing of it. (Perhaps it was just as well for her nerves that she didn’t think too hard about it!) But an assigned person monitoring the app on shore could raise the alarm in case the crew were unable to make a Mayday call. The marine version of Iridium GO! is portable and has a built-in SOS button which does not depend on a smart phone.
• Our hand-held VHF was in the grab bag – this meant we had one less thing to think about before we abandoned ship. It played an important part in our rescue, although it was lost during the later stages because it didn’t have a lanyard for attaching to a crew member.

Preparation to abandon
• Working as a team – fortunately, we had enough time to talk about what to do when leaving the boat. This might not always be possible, but it sure made a difference for us. We encouraged one another and ate chocolate and drank water as fast as we could.
We decided to attach tethers by both ends to our harnesses to link ourselves in the water. We checked one another’s life jackets and fitted crutch straps. We agreed to leave the boat to windward, presuming the boat would drift away from us, and this seemed to work well. By the time the boat went down we knew exactly what we had to do.
• Opening the gate in the railings – we could get off the boat quickly when the time came, reducing the risk of stumbling and tangling which climbing over the railings might have incurred. It also enabled us to land in the water close together, making it easier to link our tethers before drifting apart.

What could have been done better?
Not everything identified below was within our control, but they’re factors worth considering (and having possible workarounds ready) before putting to sea.
• The EPIRB should have been in the grab bag – the EPIRB, hand-held VHF and flares are critical items when abandoning ship. Our EPIRB was in a bracket on the bulkhead (a typical location) and it was lost in the roll-over. I can’t think why it can’t be kept in the grab bag, with a lanyard to attach it to a crew member. That way, it’s one less thing to think about when things get hairy. Other items in the bag could also have had lanyards.
• My personal locator beacon (PLB) – it should have been attached to my safety harness before I went on deck that morning, but I’d left it in the forward cabin. It could easily have been washed out when the forehatch was forced open in the roll-over. It’s still the stuff of my nightmares.
• We’d removed the anchor – we’d stowed it under a bunk but didn’t tie it down. We’d presumed our next stop would be at a wharf. That raises two issues which, in retrospect, concern me: the anchor can’t be deployed quickly. Re-fitting it is a 20-minute job in calm water, let alone doing it in wild weather; and what happened to it during the roll-over? We’ll never know but if it had come loose it could have caused considerable damage.
Had the plotter been working to identify the charted hazards (with the anchor mounted on the bow ready to deploy), we might have turned downwind to seek shelter along the Northland coast. This might/might not have prevented the roll-over, but it shows how two or three small things can lead or contribute to disaster.
• Huddling together for warmth in the water, as is recommended, did not work for me – I felt I was being pushed lower in the water which made it harder to breathe. I eventually settled for lying on my back with my head towards the breakers. I welcomed the little bit of floatation provided by my plastic boat shoes. I was able to relax lying horizontally on the surface.
• We didn’t fire a flare – we presumed, wrongly, that the Orion crew had seen us so we didn’t think about firing a flare. We should have briefed ourselves earlier: when a rescue boat/aircraft arrived we would fire a flare regardless of whether we believed its crew had seen us. That way, when our brains were slowing from the effects of cold and exhaustion, the chances were better that at least one of us would remember to do it.
• Different weather models created uncertainty – for our voyage we looked at four weather models that were often quite different for the same period, including the day of the sinking. This shows that weather forecasting is not a precise science, even for the experts.
When selecting a passage time it’s difficult to predict the conditions more than a few days ahead: it becomes a bit of a lottery. We wisely worked on the basis of the worst forecast – even then the wind exceeded the forecast strength by up to 15 knots.
• The life-raft fixings broke – we trust the designers to specify and fit crash-tested materials and fixings, but our life-raft was ripped from its cradle. I don’t remember how it was affixed, but no doubt the Maritime NZ investigation will report on it.
Less crucially, before the roll-over we also lost a set of solar panels attached to the stanchions. It reminded me of a saying I heard when I first started offshore cruising: ‘Don’t tie anything to the deck unless you’re prepared to lose it.’
• The touch-screen chart plotter – it stopped working when rain and spray hit the screen. I won’t be fitting one to my boat. Chart plotters are an amazing sailing aid, and most yachts rely on them now, but touch-screen versions no longer seem a wise choice.
• I believe there were plywood shutters for the boat’s large cabin windows, but they weren’t fitted – I never saw the shutters, nor do I remember seeing any permanent fixing points for them. Fitting them after the roll-over to prevent or slow water ingress would therefore have been impossible. Furthermore, I doubt whether they could have been fitted before we sailed without drilling holes into the cabin sides.
Realistically, one of the manual bilge pumps was not useable – two were fitted, as required for Category 1. One was in the cockpit – we used it constantly until the boat sank. The other one was in the aft cabin. As such, it was too far from the escape route through the main companionway, so we didn’t use it in case its operator couldn’t get out in time. But I believe that even with both pumps the boat would have sunk only marginally more slowly.
Finally, there are two things to bear in mind if you ever have to abandon ship:
• Don’t imagine a yacht will sink gradually – the last stage of a sinking happens frighteningly fast. Make sure you can get well clear when you need to.
• Cold shock – it’s literally breath-taking and will claim as many lives as drowning. Just being aware of the shock of the first moments in the water, and what your reaction might be, could save you.
I thought I’d be okay, but I found myself gasping for breath and coughing and spluttering to prevent water getting into my lungs. The first task on entering the water is getting your breathing under control. This was one of my very difficult moments, but I found a simple remedy: shut my mouth and breathe through my nose. It took about 10 minutes to settle into the swim, and even with waves crashing over me I didn’t have the same problem again.