Maritime NZ Report: Storm covers may have prevented the loss of sailing vessel, Essence

22 July 2021

The tragic sinking of the New Zealand yacht Essence, returning from Fiji, has safety lessons for all international sailing vessels.

Essence foundered in heavy seas on 14 October 2019 off Northland’s east coast on a voyage from Fiji to New Zealand. The crew abandoned the vessel and were rescued from the sea by helicopter. The skipper did not survive.

Maritime New Zealand has released a detailed report that reveals if storm covers had been fitted to protect the cabin windows, it’s possible the loss of Essence may have been avoided.

Safety regulations have now been updated to prevent similar incidents from occurring.

Neil Rowarth, Maritime NZ’s Northern Compliance Manager, said regulations at the time did not require vessels sailing from New Zealand on international voyages to have storm covers fitted in heavy seas but the regulations did require storm covers to be available if required.

“Following the recommendations of the report, Maritime NZ has worked in collaboration with Yachting NZ to amend the safety regulations to require storm covers to be positioned on windows over a certain size on sailing vessels.”

The four experienced crew on Essence had prepared for the forecast heavy weather. All hatches were checked and loose gear was secured. Storm sails and a storm drogue* were prepared. Storm covers, however, were not fitted to cabin windows.

As conditions worsened, crew described a series of semi-knockdowns during which waves broke onto the cockpit. During the final severe knockdown crew saw the starboard windows explode, followed by an inundation of water below deck.

Considerable damage was observed and it was determined the vessel was sinking. A distress message was sent, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) activated and the decision taken to abandon ship. The liferaft had been washed off deck so the crew had to abandon into the water.

Essence sank and after approximately two hours, the crew were sighted by search and rescue teams. Although he did not survive, the skipper was found to be instrumental in contributing to the survival of his crew throughout the ordeal.

Whilst the failure to have storm covers fitted in heavy seas to protect cabin windows contributed to the loss of the Essence, Maritime NZ says it is important to remember the high standards observed by the owners.

“High standards were maintained, both in terms of maintenance and equipment on board, which in some cases, surpassed Category 1 requirements.

“The tragic story of the Essence should prompt others venturing offshore to take notice, read the report and make changes to their vessels and procedures,” said Mr Rowarth.

*Correction: In the original media release (22 July 2021), Maritime NZ incorrectly stated that a storm drogue had been deployed to help make the vessel easier to control in heavy weather. The report (p4) states that “Storm sails and a storm drogue* were prepared.” We apologise for the error.

Report on the loss of the Essence [PDF: 1.69MB, 24 pages]
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