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Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 48, September 2004

The Katikati Advertiser of Tuesday, 25 November 2003, carried a report of a near tragedy and an heroic two kilometre swim by a 62-year-old Waihi beach man to save his two fishing mates when their dinghy was swamped by a wave as they crossed the Bowentown bar at about 8 45pm on Thursday 20 November, 2003. While his friends balanced on the upturned hull, the 62-year-old struck out for Waihi Beach, battling an outgoing tide, high winds and a 1.5 metre swell for 45 minutes before making it to shore at 9 30pm. The Waihi Beach Volunteer Coastguard were despatched and found the upturned boat within fifteen minutes. After rescuing the men, the boat was retrieved, emptied, and delivered home to its owner, with the snapper the fishermen had caught inside.

Not so fortunate were the crew of the launch, Mako, when it capsized on the Bowentown bar. The report, which was published in the Waihi Telegraph, reads as follows:

Tuesday, May 23, 1939

TRAGEDY ON BAR

LAUNCH CAPSIZES.

GALLANTRY COMMENDED

(By Telegraph - Own Correspondent.)

WAIHI, this day.

A dramatic story of how the launch Mako was lost on the Bowentown bar on Easter Monday, when two of her crew, Marius Lewis Murphy, chief clerk of the Martha Gold Mining Company at Waikino, and John Henrikson, farmer, of Matamata, were drowned and when a gallant attempt was made by William George Pennell, a member of the Waihi Fire Brigade, to rescue four men who were clinging to floating wreckage, was told at the adjourned inquest on the body of Henrikson, held before the coroner, Mr W M Wallnutt.

Sergeant Dunn represented the police. Horace Bethell, of Waikino, one of the eight men on the launch, said they were returning from a fishing trip when the accident occurred. Before commencing to cross the bar, the owner of the launch, Leonard Curtis, motor engineer, of Te Aroha, took the wheel. A heavy sea was running and Curtis called to witness to keep all men down in the cockpit, so as to steady the boat.

Almost in Smooth water

"We were within two minutes of being over the bar into safe water", continued witness, "when a huge wave caught the launch and capsized her. We were all thrown into the water and the launch seemed to roll right over top of us."

Witness, who said he was unable to swim, said he saw all the others clinging to the boat. He clung to a piece of floating timber and eventually reached the beach.

William George Pennell, a married man employed by the Martha Mine Gold Mining Company at Waikino, described how he made an attempt to reach four men clinging to the broken hatch by swimming out with a lifeline. The men were then about 200 yards from the shore, and were being tossed about by huge breakers. Witness said he had great difficulty in swimming through the rough sea.

"I had almost reached the men," continued witness, "when a huge breaker broke right over me and I was several seconds under water." On coming to the surface he saw the men drifting further along the beach and in towards the shore, and he then turned round and swam towards the land.

Human Chain Formed

By the time he reached the shore a number of people had formed a human chain and rescued the four men on the wreckage, all of whom were very exhausted. Efforts to restore life in the case of Henrikson, including the use of oxygen by Dr Barrowclough, failed.

The evidence of L Curtis, the owner of the launch, was similar to that given by Bethell. Witness said the wave caught the boat under the stern quarter causing it immediately to capsize. Henrikson was one of the six men clinging to the railing of the cabin top, which had come adrift. Witness swam about and tried to collect wreckage and assist the others. He then struck out for the shore and was eventually dragged on to the beach by Messrs W Walton (Tahuna) and D Andrews (Elstow).

In returning a verdict of accidental drowning, the coroner said the outstanding feature of the distressing fatality was the efforts made to rescue those struggling in the sea and the assistance given to the survivors. He made particular reference to the gallantry shown by G. Pennell in attempting to reach the four men on the hatch at the risk of his own life, and said he would have the case brought under the notice of the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand with a view to suitable recognition being made.

The following short report was published in the Waihi Telegraph on 27 July 1939:

MR W G PENNELL, of Waihi, awarded the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand for swimming out in the heavy seas with a shark line attached to his body to the rescue of members of the crew clinging to floating wreckage, when the motor launch Mako capsized on the Bowentown Bar, Waihi Beach, on April 10 last. There were six survivors out of a total of eight men on the launch.