Karen Hofman lost her beloved husband once for four long months. But now he is lost to her forever. Karen is coming to terms with the death of Phil Hofman, who passed away in March after a heart attack.
In 1989, the father of five was involved in New Zealand’s most gripping maritime survival story.
Along with John Glennie, Rick Hellreigel and Jim Nalepka, Phil was shipwrecked when their yacht, the Rose Noelle, capsized three days after it set sail from Picton for Tonga. Drifting at sea for a harrowing 119 days, the tale of how the four strangers survived the elements – and each other – has become legendary.
Many thought the men had perished, but Karen knew in her heart that her husband was still alive. She recalls how she made a pact with God, promising that if Phil was saved, she would embrace and accept him, even if he returned a changed man.
The men, who survived in a tiny area the size of a queen-sized bed, were eventually rescued when the wreckage of the Rose Noelle crashed ashore in a remote part of Great Barrier Island.
“Many days had passed,” recalls Karen, reflecting on her husband’s disappearance. “Behind the scenes, people were having conversations, saying they needed to tell me to face the reality that my husband was not coming home.
“They told me a memorial service needed to be organised. But I had to see the proof – I needed to see the wreckage. I wasn’t going to give up hope.”
In June, it will be 25 years since the famous ordeal garnered worldwide attention. Karen says it’s a fitting time to pay tribute to Phil, a man she loved dearly, one who many thought would be lost at sea forever.
“He wasn’t a glass half full kind of person. He liked the glass overflowing and being filled up again. He had an infectious energy, which I loved,” says Karen, who resides in the South Island town of Kurow. “Going through what I did during the Rose Noelle disappearance has probably prepared me for Phil’s death. I’ve already experienced missing him. But this time it’s harder, because I know he’s never coming back.”
Karen met Phil when she was 11 years old and growing up in the Auckland suburb of Manurewa. She was immediately drawn to his charm and zest for life. The pair married when Karen was just 17 and they started a family together. By the 90s, they were living on a boat and sailing around New Zealand with their children.
While docked behind the Rose Noelle in Picton, the opportunity arose for Phil, who was a builder, to join the boat’s captain, John Glennie, on a voyage to Tonga.
“Phil was always looking for adventure,” Karen explains. ”He expressed interest and was soon sailing the seas with John and two men, Rick and Jim, who John found by placing an ad at the local backpackers.”
Phil, who had had triple bypass surgery three years earlier, was looking forward to the trip, but three days into the voyage, a huge wave washed over the 12.5m yacht, tipping it upside down and trapping the men inside.
Half submerged under water, the men learned to survive in near impossible conditions. Hunched together in the upturned yacht, the men rigged up a water catchment system so that they could drink. John dived into the submerged cabin, feeling his way around for food. And the boat eventually grew barnacles and became a floating reef, so they were able to catch fish.
Karen says Phil often spoke about the horrifying experience, and told her that thinking about his family is what kept him alive.
“He wondered if he would see his children again. He realised he had a lot to lose.”
Surviving the physical elements was hard, but surviving each other – four men who had little in common – proved to be just as difficult. They realised that to get through the long days and nights, they had to work as a team and tolerate each other.
“It was wet and cold. They were stuck in a small space and were hungry and thirsty. It would be tough for any relationship to survive that,” Karen tells.
The men had no way of knowing if they would be rescued – their emergency beacon had not been picked up and eventually stopped working. But they were overjoyed when the Rose Noelle eventually washed up in a secluded area of Great Barrier Island.
After making it to shore and spending a night in the bush, the men broke into a bach, where they cleaned up, shaved, trimmed their hair, changed into clothes they found and cooked themselves a meal, before sleeping through the night.
The next day, when they sought help at a neighbouring home, the group’s reappearance sparked a media frenzy. Every news outlet wanted to tell their story, but because they appeared clean-shaven, their account was originally met with suspicion, with many claiming it was a hMax.
Rumours even surfaced that the men were covering up a drug trafficking operation to South America. However, an investigation found convincing evidence that the men’s story was true, especially when marine growth was found on the boat’s topside.
Karen was thrilled to have her husband back. She smiles, recalling that his first words to her were, “Hi, honey, I’m home.”
But the return wasn’t all plain sailing – Karen noticed a significant change in Phil.
“Emotionally and mentally, he thought it hadn’t affected him at all, but he went off the rails a bit. He thought he was invincible. I imagined he would come back changed for the better – that he would have had an epiphany. He didn’t believe in God, but I thought having had his life spared, he would have more faith. He didn’t. The attention went to his head and he went wild.”
A year after his return, the couple had their fifth child – a daughter they named Phillippa. Karen says being a father again helped Phil settle more – even though he strayed, enjoying a liason with another woman.
“I had made a deal with God,” Karen reiterates. “However he came back and however he was would be okay with me. I had to keep my end of the bargain and be happy with Phil as he was.”
In recent years, Phil became ill with heart disease, which he succumbed to on March 23. By then, the Rose Noelle drama was a distant memory for him, despite all the TV documentaries, books and plays based on the amazing survival story.
Karen says that after the disaster, Phil lost touch with the other three men. John moved to the US, Rick died of a brain tumour two years after the boat accident, and Jim returned to the US after helping to nurse Rick as his brain tumour progressed. Jim later came back to New Zealand and qualified as a nurse.
Karen says she and her five children, Elizabeth (48), Michelle (46), Chantelle (40), Dion (38) and Phillippa (23), miss Phil dearly. Rod Stewart’s song Sailing was played at his funeral and Karen still sleeps with his unwashed jersey – his scent keeping memories alive.
She says she is grateful she got to spend so many more years with Phil, after coming so close to losing him at sea.
“I loved him. For me, there was nobody else in the world. He was the father to my children and my best friend.”