The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand’s (RCCNZ) coordination of the search was initiated on Monday, 15 March, when South African man Paul van Rensburg was reported overdue from a journey between Tauranga and Gisborne.
Accompanied by his dog Juanita, Mr van Rensburg had set sail from Tauranga on his 11 metre steel yacht Tafadzwa the previous Friday, 12 March, with the expectation his ocean voyage would take two days and he would arrive in time for work in Gisborne on Monday morning.
Although the yacht was equipped with the appropriate communications and safety gear, Mr van Rensburg’s last known contact was a phone call he made to his partner Kristen on the afternoon of his departure.
RCCNZ’s involvement with the search began when the centre was informed by Police that Mr van Rensburg was overdue in the early afternoon of Monday 15 March. Police had coordinated an unsuccessful aerial search of the coast to Hicks Bay that afternoon, and RCCNZ-coordinated aerial searches began the following morning.
Concerns mounted for Mr van Rensburg as time passed with no contact from the experienced sailor. There was speculation the yacht might have been hit by a severe storm that struck the east coast very early on Saturday morning.
Predictive software was used to map possible paths of the yacht if it was drifting, but there were significant challenges in pinpointing its likely whereabouts, partly due to the time lapse between the last known contact with Mr van Rensburg and when he was reported overdue, and partly due to the lack of any confirmed sightings of the vessel.
Extensive coastal and oceanic searches over three days by a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion and three other aircraft – covering approximately 96,000 square nautical miles (328,000 square kilometres) and searching areas far beyond the computer-predicted drift of a disabled yacht – failed to locate any sign of the missing vessel.
The search was suspended on the evening of 18 March.
During the search there was significant media interest, including from South Africa, and much speculation about the yacht’s fate. This interest continued in the following days.
Although the search was suspended, RCCNZ continued to seek and investigate information relating to the missing vessel with, among other activities, marine radio broadcasts asking for reports of any sightings of the yacht, or new information that may have supported further search efforts.
A reported sighting sparked a short aerial search on 20 March, but was later confirmed to be a false alarm.
RCCNZ continued to work with Mr van Rensburg’s family to examine whether any possible scenarios had been overlooked.
RCCNZ also sought technical assistance from the US Coastguard, using satellite imagery to search an area much further east of New Zealand and approximately the same size as the area already searched. Unfortunately, this yielded no useful information.
Ten days after the search was suspended, on the afternoon of 28 March, an Air Force P3 Orion on a training exercise found Tafadzwa about 60 nautical miles (110 kilometres) west of the Chatham Islands. The yacht’s sails were up, but badly torn, and there was no sign of activity on deck.
RCCNZ diverted the nearest fishing vessel in the vicinity to the yacht, but no one responded to the fishing crew’s loud hailer and the crew were unable to board safely because of failing light and heavy seas.
When Tafadzwa was boarded the next morning, Mr van Rensburg was not there. His life raft, emergency locator beacon and other emergency equipment were all still on board. His dog, Juanita, was in the cockpit, alive.
The yacht was towed to Wainui Harbour in the Chatham Islands and Juanita was placed in the temporary care of the local policeman, attracting significant media interest.
With limited evidence available, MNZ’s safety inquiry into the yacht’s fate was inconclusive. The GPS equipment on board showed only the last 24 miles of the yacht’s journey – while it was being towed in to Wainui Harbour.
The last of the positions marked on the navigational charts, which had previously been marked at regular intervals, was just east of Cape Runaway on East Cape at 3am on 13 March, the morning after Mr van Rensburg’s departure from Tauranga.
MNZ has concluded its safety inquiry, but a Police investigation into Mr van Rensburg’s disappearance is continuing.
Mr van Rensburg’s family arrived in New Zealand shortly after Tafadzwa was found. During their visit, they spent time at RCCNZ, the Chatham Islands and East Cape. Before their departure, the family released a public statement expressing their “heartfelt thanks” to RCCNZ for its efforts and support during the search for Mr van Rensburg. The family also thanked Police and all those who had supported them during their time in New Zealand.