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'Nonchalant' solo sailor died from misadventure

Date

Mark Russell

Neil Qualtrough's purchased the yacht in America where they were cheaper and planned to sail it home.

Neil Qualtrough's purchased the yacht in America where they were cheaper and planned to sail it home. Photo: Supplied

Neil Qualtrough's dream was to buy a yacht and go sailing.

His dream cost him his life.

A coroner today found the inexperienced sailor died from misadventure at sea after setting off alone from Hawaii to sail to Australia.

Judge Jennifer Coate said that Mr Qualtrough's daughter, Sarah, had given evidence that her father had virtually no sailing experience other than maybe spending an afternoon on a friend's yacht from time to time, but not amounting to more than about once a year.

In late 2006 he decided to buy a yacht in America where they were cheaper and sail it home.

"Sarah expressed considerable concern to him about this plan but stated that her father seemed 'nonchalant' about the trip," Judge Coate said in her findings.

Mr Qualtrough, a widower, found a 16-metre three-mast yacht with a wooden hull in Hawaii which carried a five person life raft and spent six months repairing it before getting homesick and deciding to set off.

"Sarah stated that her father deliberated over whether to sail alone or take a crew, but ultimately the evidence is that he decided to go alone," the coroner said.

"Sarah stated that she was very apprehensive about this decision given her father had limited sailing experience. Her evidence was that she tried to talk him out of sailing alone but apparently to no avail. He reassured her that he had up-to-date navigation equipment, a Ham radio and a distress beacon."

Mr David Pawley, a marine engineer, said he was working on a yacht at Waikiki when an American approached him to express concern about an Australian man who was preparing to sail back to Australia.

The American had gone sailing with the Australian and was concerned at how he was steering his yacht improperly.

Mr Pawley went to see Mr Qualtrough, 64, who told him: "I know why you are here and I don't need your help."

"Mr Pawley stated that in his judgment this man's proposal to sail his yacht to Australia was not a good idea but that the man was determined to go," Judge Coate said.

Sarah last spoke to her father on June 5, 2007 - the day before he set off - when he told her he planned to sail via Tahiti, Fiji or Samoa and then follow the east coast of Australia back home to Victoria. He anticipated it would take him three weeks to get to Tahiti.

After four weeks without contact, Sarah called the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) in July 2007 in considerable distress and expressing her concerns for her father's safety.

On July 9, the AMSA's regional co-ordination centre made inquiries with other centres located in the Pacific region, as well as operators associated with the Ham (amateur radio) networks, shipping channels and yachting communities.

Judge Coate said no physical search was conducted to locate Mr Qualtrough as his proposed trip was not specific enough to begin any search.

No further search and rescue action has been taken by the AMSA or any other maritime body since September 9, 2007.

Sarah went to Box Hill police station in October 2007 to report her father missing and police liaised with Interpol in Canberra who distributed a missing person's notice to 188 Interpol member countries in December 2007 but no information was received about Mr Qualtrough.

One of several theories about Mr Qualtrough's fate is that pirates boarded his yacht somewhere in the Pacific. He may have have changed his travel plans or drifted off course towards Papua New Guinea - a renowned pirate haunt.

But investigating officer Senior Constable Scott Stephens told Fairfax Media in 2008 that while he could not rule out a pirate attack, the most likely scenario was that Mr Qualtrough had either accidentally fallen overboard, been knocked over by the boom, or his yacht had sunk in heavy seas.

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