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How Great Barrier Island boatie Michael Graham and his teen daughter survived a terrifying 46 hours lost at sea

“I’d look outside and see a wave right up against the window. It was so scary, I was planning my funeral in my head!”

By Lynley Ward

Placing outstretched hands on the side of the boat, Tania-Rose Turner-Graham braced herself for the impact of monster seven-metre waves slamming into the stricken vessel, knowing that if it flipped, she'd likely die.

Her clothes torn after being used to fuel an emergency signal fire, the 17-year-old schoolgirl was in the fight of her life after a routine fishing trip with her father Michael Graham turned into a terrifying 46-hour ordeal.

They were lost at sea, their crippled craft adrift at the mercy of wild seas, driving rain and fierce winds.

What was meant to be a quick final trip off Great Barrier Island before heading home to Rotorua to start a new school term instead saw the teenager call on a resilience beyond her years as she and her father joined forces to battle the elements. Conditions were so diabolical that rescuers frantically searching for the duo had been forced to turn back.

But thanks to her father's seafaring knowledge and army background, and Tania-Rose's staunch attitude, the pair worked together, pulling off a near-impossible feat to survive the tempest and give those waiting for them the outcome they dared hope for.

Speaking exclusively to Woman's Day, Tania-Rose is still suffering ill effects and bouts of dizziness after spending two days and nights on the stormy seas, but otherwise pleased to be alive.

The family on holiday at Ohope Beach in 2011 (from left): Pare, Anton, Michael, Jade and keen angler Tania-Rose.
The family on holiday at Ohope Beach in 2011 (from left): Pare, Anton, Michael, Jade and keen angler Tania-Rose.

Remarkably, she and Michael, 41, not only survived the nightmare ordeal on just one bottle of water between them, but they needed no medical treatment once they made landfall on the Sunday, instead downing a hot pie and coffee before being reunited with their whanau.

Bravely recounting the frightening hours spent lost at sea, the Year 13 student reveals how her thoughts turned dark the longer they drifted. Tania-Rose tells, "I'd look outside and see a wave right up against the window. It was so scary, I was planning my funeral in my head!"

"But there was no way I was giving up on my girl," insists Michael, who repeatedly put his own life at risk by clambering over the side of the boat to keep the stricken timber launch from tipping in swells as high as a two-storey house.

Michael and Tania-Rose with family members (from left) Sue Ahong, Pare Turner-Graham, Crystal Carter, Jade, Crystal-Rita Carter, Sasha Nicol and Anahera Turner.
Michael and Tania-Rose with family members (from left) Sue Ahong, Pare Turner-Graham, Crystal Carter, Jade, Crystal-Rita Carter, Sasha Nicol and Anahera Turner.

Tania-Rose, a keen fisher, who spent her school holidays on Great Barrier with her dad, says when they found the boat's engine wasn't working on the Friday evening, she was a little scared.

"Once it got closer to night, I fully freaked out because I've never been on a boat overnight unplanned and because we didn't take any food. We only took that one bottle of water, thinking we were only going to be out until 5 o'clock."

With all power cut out on the eight-metre launch as it drifted away from shore and the battery on Michael's cellphone dead, the pair set about raising the alarm.

"No-one was close enough to hear or see what was going on," recalls Tania-Rose, who was wearing warm clothing, including gumboots, socks, tights, a jersey and jacket. "We tried to get someone's attention and then Dad set off the flares."

After two flares failed, the pair resorted to lighting a signal fire inside the boat.

"We made a big fire in a bucket and waved it around," explains Tania-Rose. "The fire started to die down, so I grabbed the knife, cut my tights and put them on the fire. Still no-one saw it and that's when Dad was really panicking."

As darkness fell, the pair prepared themselves for an uncomfortable night in the wheelhouse using a spare lifejacket as a pillow. All this time, Tania-Rose willed someone to come to their aid.

"I was saying, 'Please, somebody, just save us.'"

After midnight, the father and daughter watched in dismay as container ships passed by within a couple of hundred metres, failing to notice the weak Morse code flashing from their small torch.

"I was sitting there with the light trying to do SOS, but it was just too little," says Tania-Rose. "They wouldn't have been able to see it. Dad was trying to make another light. He unscrewed one from the engine room, and unravelled the wires to reach the cabin and connect it so we could blink it." But still, nobody saw them.

Having snatched little more than a few minutes' sleep, the pair waited for rescuers to arrive at first light.

But what greeted them was one of the wildest days of the year, with torrential rain and 110km/h storm-force winds whipping up massive swells that threatened to swamp the boat.

After two harrowing days at sea, the relieved father and daughter were overjoyed to be towed back to Waiheke by a police launch.
After two harrowing days at sea, the relieved father and daughter were overjoyed to be towed back to Waiheke by a police launch.

Meanwhile, eldest daughter Pare Graham, 19, who had spent most of the night in her car at the Tryphena Wharf waiting for her father and sister to return, raced to her grandparents' house to raise the alarm.

Now more than 15 hours adrift, with the surrounding sea cloaked in fog and conditions worsening by the minute, Tania-Rose and her dad faced their toughest test, swinging into survival mode to keep the small vessel from rolling.

She recalls, "As the biggest waves were coming in, I had to run to the side of the boat closest to them and push against it, while Dad grabbed some tyres on the side of the boat and tried to use them as anchors so that it would slow us down so we wouldn't tip. I had to use all my body strength to try and not make us flip. I was mainly running on fear."

"I was running on keeping my daughter safe," adds Michael, who reckons they were close to capsizing at least six times. Then just when the pair thought things couldn't get worse, the stricken vessel was suddenly on a collision
course with Channel Island, an inhospitable rock jutting out of the Colville Channel north of the Coromandel Peninsula.

"That's when I told Miss Rose that you better come out here and get your gumboots off," says Michael.

"That was the only point I was ready to jump," she tells.

But within metres of the treacherous rock, waves smashing into the sheer face, the boat miraculously took a different course.

"We got within eight metres, then we started drifting around," tells Michael, relieved they didn't have to abandon ship. For a second night, the pair hunkered down in the engine room, both now vomiting due to lingering toxic fumes from the earlier fire and diesel used in attempts to repair the vessel. Tania-Rose says she spent the night on edge as the boat zig-zagged across the gulf on the tide.

"I got 20 minutes' sleep at the most," she tells. "The waves were still pretty big, so every time I heard or felt one, I would just get up straightaway and wake Dad. I was constantly on watch. I was really worried we'd crash into something like a tanker."

At daybreak, some 43 hours after they launched, things took a turn for the better, with the fog clearing to reveal Waiheke Island and a house.

"We were out with the light straightaway, trying to signal the house," says Michael.

And then in the distance Tania-Rose spotted the Police Eagle helicopter and the duo frantically waved. "I was so happy. I was crying a little bit. I was saying, 'We're safe!'"

Soon after, the crippled craft was under tow to Waiheke. "I was just so happy," repeats Tania-Rose. "I sat down and said, 'I don't have to do any more.'"

Back on dry land with mum Jade, the pair's smiling faces say it all.
Back on dry land with mum Jade, the pair's smiling faces say it all.

Once back on land, the pair were reunited with their overjoyed family members, including mother Jade, who had travelled up from Rotorua when she heard her beloved daughter was missing.

She laughs, "I thanked Michael for bringing Tania-Rose home, then gave him a crack on the back of the head and said, 'Don't you ever do that again!'"

Seated alongside her parents on a sunny Auckland autumn day, Tania-Rose says, "I'm just glad to be alive."

"I'm very proud of my daughter," smiles Michael, pleased everything gelled between them on the boat.

"She really stepped up. This was a life-or-death situation. I was clambering on the outside of my boat and she was constantly on my case making sure I wasn't going overboard!"

"If you had fallen in, I would have jumped in the water!" Tania-Rose replies without hesitation. "But I'm never going out on a boat with you again!"

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