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Battered trimaran found after two years

The only sign of the couple who were sailing it was a desperate message scratched into the hull

The only sign of the couple who were sailing it was a desperate message scratched into the hull

The message was short but chilling: “HELP 2 POB.” Translation: Help, two people on board.

The dire communication was scratched into the hull of a 41-foot trimaran named Manoah that washed ashore this winter in the Kingdom of Tonga, one of the island chains that dot the South Pacific. Only the barnacle-covered central hull and a portion of the bridge deck remained; there was no sign of the cruising couple — Australian Garry Cull and his girlfriend, Verona Hunt.

The hull was the first significant piece of evidence found since the pair disappeared almost two years ago. They had left New ZealandJune 8, 2005, and were heard from via radio the next day, but after that, nothing. For the skipper’s family the discovery of the battered hull represents a closure of sorts, ending any hopes they had that their son and his companion might be found alive, stranded on a remote island.

Cull and Hunt — 44 and 46 respectively at the time of their voyage — left from Hunt’s hometown of Nelson, New Zealand, bound for Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands. The couple expected to make the passage in two weeks and planned to spend a number of days on the resort island, east of Fiji. When they failed to arrive after nearly three weeks, they were reported missing to Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand.

“The challenge faced by RCCNZ was that no one knew what route [they] were taking to sail to Rarotonga and what they were planning to do along the way,” says RCCNZ search-and-

rescue officer John Ashby in a statement to Soundings.

Despite an investigation that lasted weeks and a two-day aerial search covering nearly 230,000 square miles, Manoah wasn’t located. “They must have been alive for quite a while to have scratched that message onto the boat,” says Cull’s mother, Beatrice, 71, who spoke with Soundings from her home in Sydney, Australia. “Before the boat was found, we could hold on to the smallest hope that they were still alive. Now, we can’t.”

In an article, written in the form of a letter to her son and published in an April issue of Australia’s weekly Take 5 magazine, Cull remembers her son as an adventurous child who dropped out of school at age 15. When he was in his 20s, Cull spent three months learning “to live off the land” with the Aborigines in Western Australia. The victim’s mother also tells of how Garry sailed to Surfers Paradise — a Gold Coast town near Queensland known for its beaches — where he apparently helped rescue a man whose boat had capsized. As a token of his gratitude, the rescued sailor gave Cull the plans for a trimaran.

According to the magazine article, Garry Cull returned home in January 1996 and spent the next three years building the sailboat in his back yard. He constructed the blue-and-white boat of plywood and fiberglass, and fitted her with two masts, Ashby says in the statement. He installed an 18-hp outboard and christened her Manoah.

“Garry was always happy when he was working on the boat,” says Beatrice Cull in her interview with Soundings. “He had been sailing for 14 or 15 years. He loved being on the water.”

In December 1999 Cull hired a crane to hoist Manoah from the back yard and launch her in Sydney’s GeorgesRiver, according to the article. He spent the next four years exploring the Tasman Sea and South Pacific, and by February 2004 he had sailed to New Zealand, where he met Hunt. The two apparently hit it off, and nearly a year and a half later, they had a plan to sail from Nelson to Rarotonga. The couple notified friends and family but filed no float plan.

In terms of equipment and provisioning, rescue officer Ashby reported, “Manoah was not equipped for two-way, long-range communications, although a HF receiver was fitted for receiving weatherfax data. The vessel was also fitted with a 121.5 MHz [EPIRB] that, in RCCNZ’s assessment, had not been activated. The crew were reported to have had food for seven weeks. The Manoah carried no life raft or dinghy.”

And there are differing impressions of Manoah’s general construction. In the magazine, Beatrice Cull says her husband, Ron Cull — who helped build Manoah — described the boat as “virtually unsinkable.” In an e-mail to Soundings, Chris Hawkes, manager of the Nelson Marina, where Garry Cull kept Manoah when he was in New Zealand, says the trimaran was, “to general comment around the marina, a little on the ‘light’ side, both in construction and rigging. It appeared to be tender,” says Hawkes, who never sailed aboard the tri, “and this was very noticeable when you stood on it.”

RCCNZ reports issued in early and mid-June 2005 indicate that a series of storms rolled through the South Pacific north of New Zealand. Although no specifics about the storms were given, the reports tell of at least three vessels that required assistance due to capsizing or other damage.

RCCNZ was notified June 27 that Manoah had failed to arrive in Rarotonga, and the agency launched an investigation. “No clear picture of the most likely route emerged, although it was established that a passage time of 30 days or more would not be unusual, especially with the weather systems that had affected the region since mid-June,” Ashby says.

Over the next two weeks, no one saw Manoah or heard from Cull and Hunt. On July 15 RCCNZ launched a two-day aerial search using a Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion aircraft. Still, no trace of the boat could be found.

“With a lack of information, RCCNZ analyzed all likely scenarios, with the most likely being that the vessel was damaged in storms six to seven days after departing from New Zealand and that it was adrift somewhere in the South Pacific,” says Ashby.

No clues indicating what may have happened to Cull and Hunt turned up until Manoah’s wreckage washed ashore Feb. 7, 2007. But without a log book or any communication from Manoah, RCCNZ investigators may never know what actually happened.

“There’s a little part of me that still wonders if somehow you and Verona managed to swim to an island,” Beatrice Cull says to her son in the magazine. “Then maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that in some remote corner of the South Pacific you’re alive, surviving, using the skills your dad taught you as a little boy. I know it’s hopeless, but for now I’ll carry on believing in you, just like I always did.”