On 18 January 2018, the 17.5m wooden catamaran MV Butiraoi left Nonouiti Island in Kiribati, for the 240km (“two-day”) journey north to Betio on Tarawa atoll, the main atoll in Kiribati.
The vessel, carrying 88 people, capsized shortly after leaving Nonouiti. For reasons unknown, the vessel was not reported overdue for 5-6 days (7-8 days after sinking).
An aerial search for survivors was conducted by New Zealand, Australia and the USA – starting on 27 January, nine days after the vessel sank – and was abandoned on 2 February. Seven survivors (some early reports said eight) were located by the NZ Air Force and rescued from an aluminium dinghy on 28 January.
There are numerous, troubling questions about this tragedy, including questions about the seaworthiness of the vessel, the lack of communications around its ETA, the uncertainty about passenger numbers, overloading, insufficient liferafts and apparently not even a basic EPIRB.
The trip was expected to take two days. Perhaps this simply means “more than one day” since 48 hours of sailing would suggest the ferry would be making less than six knots – remarkably slow progress.
Initial reports stated there were about 50 people on the ferry, but on 29 January the Kiribati Prime Minister said there could have been as many as 100 people. This was later revised to 88 people embarking at Nonouiti, but it isn’t clear whether this number includes crew.
The New Zealand Rescue Coordination Centre said it was asked to assist the Fiji rescue centre by organising an aerial search for the ferry on 25 or 26 January (both dates are cited in RCC news releases), but that was a full week after the ferry left port and five days after it was due to arrive in Betio. There has been no explanation so far for this delay or the confusion as to when the request for assistance reached New Zealand. Nor is it clear what efforts had been made by the Fiji rescue centre in the interim – the disaster happened in their area of responsibility and it was they who asked New Zealand to help.
The NZ RCC said the ferry carried two small aluminium dinghies and a 25-person liferaft. The survivors picked up from the dinghy said they saw the other dinghy capsize.
MV Butiraoi was equipped with an HF radio, but it is not known if any distress message was sent. It appears the vessel did not have a working EPIRB as there has been report of an emergency signal being received.