Enchanter tragedy: Inside the ‘fishing trip of a lifetime’ that cost five lives

When Lance Goodhew headed out around the top of New Zealand for Manawatāwhi-Three Kings Islands, his mind would have been fixed on the five days ahead.

At the forefront was wanting to provide his eight guests from Waikato with the time of their lives. Also in mind would have been the weather forecast and navigating whatever was coming so they could all get home again afterwards.

That’s the view of a skipper who has stood, like Goodhew, at the helm of a vessel heading out to sea with a dedicated group of anglers embarking on a journey years in the making.

It’s a business, says the former skipper who spoke to the Herald, that involves heading into seas and potential bad weather “you’re quite comfortable in because you’ve been in it a hundred times before”.

The passengers, though, “have not and it can scare the shit out of them”.

“He has a task,” says the experienced skipper. “He’s to take them fishing and give them a good experience. It’s the fishing trip of a lifetime.”

For Goodhew, it wasn’t the “trip of a lifetime”. It was another day at the office for a professional mariner who has spoken of spending 250 days a year at sea for the past two decades.

By the end of the trip, it had cost five lives. Cambridge men Richard Bright, 63, Mike Lovett, 72, Geoffrey Allen, 72, Mark Walker, 41, and Mark Sanders, 43, from Te Awamutu died when Enchanter capsized.

Five others survived. Goodhew and deckhand Kobe O’Neill were plucked from the sea with three of their paying customers in a daring midnight rescue during a fierce early-autumn storm.

To call it the trip of a lifetime doesn’t quite capture how exclusive and expensive such charter trips can be. The Enchanter trip cost $4000 a day for up to eight people and with another $1000 a day for food and rod hire. The five-day trip was priced around $25,000.

Not all eight Waikato men knew each other. They’d met at a planning meeting for the trip at Bright’s Group One Turf Bar in Cambridge.

But they knew fishing. In our island nation, in which most have held a fishing rod, they belonged to a tribe of anglers that stands separate from others. For those people, fishing is an all-consuming passion.

Goodhew, a qualified offshore master, sold himself as having a “dedication and passion for fishing” that drove him to give those aboard “the ultimate fishing experience”.

He did so through Enchanter Fishing Charters, which he set up in 1995. The company website told anglers Goodhew was “not happy unless you are fishing to the limit, always striving for bigger, better and non-stop action”.

“He will push you to your limit and beyond to land the fish of your dreams.”

The group arrived at Mangonui in Northland on Tuesday and ate a fish-and-chip dinner from the takeaway shop at the rear of the Mangonui Hotel. Those who drink at the bar are accustomed to raising a glass with Goodhew’s clients before trips. They know the skipper well – he lives at neighbouring Coopers Beach but Enchanter and the company’s other two boats operate out of Mangonui Harbour.

The night before a trip, clients would load gear aboard Enchanter and spend the evening chatting, drinking and catching live bait to use throughout the trip. For Mangonui locals, it was a familiar pattern of life – they could hear the excited banter across the water after dark and see, the following morning, staff from the Four Square trundling food along the wharf as the boat prepared to leave about 7.30am.

The trip to Manawatāwhi-Three Kings is an all-day affair, targeting marlin and tuna along the way. “During the peak of the season marlin are prolific at the kings and on the coast, so travelling during daylight hours is a must,” Goodhew’s website says.

Having followed the coast as far north as it goes, Enchanter would head northeast to cover the 80 kilometres out to the 13 islands that make up the Manawatāwhi-Three Kings group. The company’s own timetable has Enchanter arriving at 9pm.

And then it’s three non-stop days targeting some of the most sought-after species in fishing – kingfish topping 40kg, striped marlin up to 200kg and black or blue marlin up to and beyond 400kg. There’s bass, hapuku, tuna and wreckfish along with fish one might expect to catch off the back of a boat in New Zealand waters.

At Manawatāwhi-Three Kings, though, it’s different. The currents move differently, bringing warmer waters that keep many species around longer than further south. Tropical mahimahi “are also not uncommon”.

NZ Fishing News director Grant Dixon says: “It’s one of those bucket-list places for Kiwi anglers to fish.”

Some keen anglers will pursue the dream of catching a marlin their whole life. Dixon recalls one trip he was on to Manawatāwhi-Three Kings during which 32 marlin were caught in five days. “That’s the sort of reason why it’s special.”

Sunday would have been the last day at Manawatāwhi-Three Kings, going by Enchanter’s schedule. The usual routine would have the vessel leaving for North Cape during the afternoon. There would be an overnight mooring planned with Enchanter’s scheduled return between 1pm and 3pm on Monday.

Like any disaster, there will be key points at which everything could have turned out differently. They will be the moments that, say other mariners, Goodhew will play over in his mind. They will also be the moments of focus for investigators from Maritime NZ, police and the Transport Accident Investigation Commission.

TAIC chief investigator Harald Hendel said any skipper who suffered losses on craft they commanded would ask themselves “what could I have done – what could I have done better?”.

To be someone in command of a craft and to suffer such an accident had a tremendously deep impact.

“I’m sure that something like this would rest on that person the rest of their life.”

For Goodhew, planning the return to Mangonui, it was clear that bad weather was coming. MetService had issued an “orange warning” for the 24-hour period in which Enchanter was due to return.

On Sunday, around the time Enchanter began its 80km crossing from Manawatāwhi-Three Kings, it warned of “heavy rain, possible thunderstorms, and strong northeast winds to many places”.

Ahead of the trip Mark Sanders had spoken about the weather forecast, concerned it might result in an early return. Enchanter’s website would have offered some comfort around a trip cut short. “Trips are rarely cancelled,” it stated, offering assurances the 30-tonne boats were surveyed to operate 185km offshore and had extensive safety equipment.

“It is not unusual fishing these offshore remote places to experience moderate weather of 20-plus knots (about 40km/h) of wind with current and swell.”

Sanders gave no sign of concern when he rang his wife and three children around 6pm that Sunday. The phone call would have been made almost as soon as Enchanter came close enough to pick up mobile phone reception.

His mum Gael said her youngest son “was having such a wonderful time and just so happy … He’d caught some amazing fish and it was the best time of his life.”

The first sign of trouble was an emergency beacon activated around 8pm from southeast of North Cape which was picked up by the Rescue Coordination Centre. The retired skipper who spoke to the Herald was familiar with the area and said the northeast wind and prevailing tides would have waves “standing up on end” down the coast.

It was weather described as “absolutely horrendous” by Nat Davey, skipper of the Florence Nightingale, with winds of 55 knots (100km/h). Davey was skippering one of two commercial fishing boats weathering that night at Manawatāwhi-Three Kings Islands. Both Florence Nightingale and the other boat, Katrina, fished out of Mangonui.

The retired skipper familiar with the coast said once the boat passed beyond North Cape and Surville Cliffs, the only adequate shelter was back around the top, tucked into Tom Bowling Bay.

He was dubious at reports Enchanter had found shelter when it was struck. The heading and location of the vessel at the time it was flipped will be key parts of the investigation.

“He would have been thinking ‘Mangonui is three or four hours away and I’m in the middle of this shit’ so he tried to turn. He can’t keep going down the coast because he’ll be getting smashed.”

Turning would have exposed the side of the boat to the swell of the waves. Side-on to the waves, the retired skipper described Enchanter as being at its “most vulnerable”.

“You know you’re going to get hit by two or three waves and you’d be hoping you don’t get a big one.”

Davey, who later joined the search, told Newshub that Enchanter has “worn a big one and it’s taken the wheelhouse off”.

Goodhew’s mum June has spoken to her son. “Lance told me the wave was over 30 feet.”

It’s a prospect that left the retired skipper aghast. He was also familiar with the Enchanter and said the bridge sat on a wall of glass around the wheelhouse which would have been swept away under violent assault.

The sea swamping into the vessel would have left tonnes of water in the boat and severely degraded its ability to control its own passage. If it hadn’t flipped already, it would with the next wave or two as it swung broadside to the tide.

Goodhew told his mum June two alert beacons were activated. The first at the wheel when the wave hit and the second, manually, afterwards. And then they were in the water, waiting for help.

The alert brought help from all directions. The Northern Rescue Helicopter was called to action around 8.40pm and took off from Whangarei about 10pm.

Lance Donnelly, a pilot of 30 years, would later that evening say it was “the most extreme, most challenging rescue I’ve ever done”.

As they flew north, it wasn’t clear what type of emergency it was: “We didn’t know whether the boat was in distress or if there were any people in distress.”

As they prepared to land at Kaitaia to refuel about 10.50pm, Donnelly was told there were 10 people in the water. And, as he grappled with that, there was also increasingly wild weather. By morning, Northland would be lashed with more than 100mm of rain.

With approval to fly despite the weather, they arrived at the search around about 11.40pm and began looking for the beacons.

“It was very challenging: nighttime, over the water, big swells and serious wind,” said Donnelly.

First, there were two lights in the water. Then they saw three people clinging to the shattered remains of Enchanter. As Donnelly piloted, the co-pilot watched the weather, and called out heights and direction as a swimmer was lowered by the winch operator.

The video footage is stunning. A lone swimmer lowered from a helicopter into swirling seas, clambering onto the wreckage.

“The structure the survivors were on was rocking quite a lot, so we couldn’t risk putting the rescue swimmer on to that structure.

“[The rescue swimmer] had to get the survivors into the water for us to get them back, we couldn’t winch them directly off the hull because the pilot couldn’t see it.”

They recovered three men and flew them to Te Hapua, New Zealand’s northernmost village, then returned to the search.

The emergency alert had brought help from all directions – extraordinary given North Cape is one of the most remote, hard-to-reach parts of the country.

Automatic Identification System tracking showed the commercial fishing boats overnighting at Manawatāwhi-Three Kings Islands – Florence Nightingale and Katrina – suddenly powered up and gunned it towards the Enchanter’s last-known location.

Mary Roberts, who had served those on the Enchanter their fish and chips the previous Tuesday, woke up to hear the Royal NZ Air Force’s P3 Orion fly over Mangonui on its way north. A half-hour later her son Nate called. He used to crew with Goodhew, had heard the news and just had to ring his mum.

“He was really upset,” she says.”It’s bloody devastating, especially when you know the men. It’s just like one of your brothers, isn’t it?”

By then, the Northland Rescue Helicopter team had found two more men on the Enchanter’s upturned hull. It flew with them to Kaitaia Hospital, handing the search over to a relieving team from Auckland.

Finding five people alive, at that point, had left the crew flat. “Our concern at the time was, there’s still five more people out there and we felt a little bit helpless to be honest,” Donnelly said.

When morning came, the AIS tracking system showed the Houhora Coastguard had joined the commercial fishing boats, along with the Royal NZ Navy ship Taupo.

As the P3 Orion overhead carved out a systematic search pattern from the skies, the vessels on the water did likewise.

Dawn brought no further good news. That day and the next saw five others from the Enchanter recovered, none alive.

What comes now are the inquiries and the funerals.

The investigators are speaking to survivors, the survivors have – in some cases – visited the families of the dead.

Shay Ward and Mark Sanders were mates who planned the trip together. Ward returned home this week and had been to visit his mate’s family to pay his respects. The pair of them had talked about this trip for years, says Sanders’ mum Gael, and “about two years ago they got really serious about it and they definitely wanted to do it so they saved”.

This Sunday, Sanders’ funeral will be held. Kane Osborne, who used to play rugby with Sanders, will be livestreaming it at his Storyteller Bar & Eatery. The service and the bar are expected to be packed.

A few months ago on the briefing ahead of the trip, the Te Awamutu mates met up with others who were going and realised they also knew Richard Bright, who was friends with a couple of others on the trip. Bright’s funeral will be held on Wednesday at 1pm at the Cambridge Raceway. His mate Mike Lovett was being farewelled in a private service this weekend.

The grieving Te Awamutu will experience this Sunday will be played out across the Waikato this weekend and in the week ahead.

After learning of Sanders’ death, Arty Mudaliar – “shocked to the core” by the tragedy – started a Facebook chat with about 10 others from Te Awamutu Sports who played rugby with him in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

It had grown to more than 60 people, including former teammates and coaches. Mudaliar said the group decided to set up a Givealittle page to support Sanders’ wife and three children. So far $28,000 has been donated in just a number of days.

This Sunday, he said, “we will all meet and catch up to reminisce and count your blessings”.

Gael Sanders is also counting blessings, few as they might be: “We’re getting there. It’s very difficult, it’s not easy but there’s a lot to be thankful for. All those brave people that saved him and brought him home – how amazing they must be.”

There are three inquiries under way. TAIC inquiries are intended to find why accidents happen without finding fault. The intent is to do whatever can be done to stop accidents from repeating.

There is also the Maritime NZ inquiry and possibly a WorkSafe inquiry. Police will also be involved in gathering evidence for the coronial inquiry.

The investigations will run for months – a drawn-out sequel to the long 10 days since Enchanter left the wharf at Mangonui.

The retired skipper, who was familiar with North Cape and Enchanter, said: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

On any other occasion, Enchanter would have survived the night and motored into Mangonui Harbour the next afternoon with a hold full of fish on ice and legendary stories for the men who went on the trip of a lifetime.

The skipper said he and others who made a living on the sea, had “probably been in similar situations and had a fright”. Goodhew, he reckoned, had “probably had more frights than most”.

The big wave was the fright that came true.

“Surfies know these things and they know it’s the money-in-the-bank wave. When you’re in a boat, it’s not the one you want to get.

“You might get away with it this time and that time but eventually Mother Nature is going to come and smack you around the head. We all dread that because sometimes that lesson can be harsh.

“At the end of the day, the responsibility rests with the skipper. It’s a lot resting on your shoulders and most times – touch wood – you get it right. On the occasions you don’t, there will be a price to pay.”

Herald reporting team: David Fisher, Caitlin Johnstone, Carolyn Meng-Yee, Peter de Graaf, Jaime Lyth and Adam Pearse.

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