Coastguard radio operators raise the alarm – and save three lives

Buzz & Oisin

“We were shaking, we were pretty cold. We were looking to the heavens waiting, but there was nothing. I said my goodbyes. I said my goodbyes a couple of times, actually. I knew the situation was bad.”

Imagine being lost at sea, injured and exhausted, with no way of calling for help. It’s exactly what happened to three experienced boaties when they tried to cross the Manukau Bar.

John, Buzz and Oisin, mates for many years, had been out fishing when they decided to call it a day and head back to shore, to duck the bad weather that was coming.

John Potter, skipper, radioed Coastguard volunteers to let them know they were about to cross the notorious Manukau Bar, a dangerous stretch of water that has a history of tragic drownings. That one radio call saved their lives.

As soon as they started they were in trouble.  Their boat came off the back of one wave and was immediately scooped up by another. The wave flipped the boat as easily as a child’s toy, rolling it twice.

John and Buzz were flung 30 metres from the boat.

Buzz could see that John was in real trouble. “There was a 130-litre chilly bin beside me,” said Buzz. “I emptied as much water as I could out of it and swam over to John. He couldn’t swim – he had a badly cracked pelvis.” But, worse still, they couldn’t see Oisin at all.

When the boat rolled, Oisin was trapped underneath. He fought to get out.

"I was stuck in the boat, getting forced back in by each wave as I tried to get out. I tried to get a Mayday call out but the radio was hanging by a wire. I knew I had to get out. I was in the hull running out of air."

What none of them knew was that their earlier radio call to Coastguard had put our volunteers on high alert.  The Manukau bar is so dangerous that they’re trained to immediately start searching after 30 minutes, should boats not radio in to say they are safely across.

Finally Oisin managed to swim out from under the boat. Exhausted and losing blood fast, Oisin climbed onto the hull and started looking for his mates.

He also tied ropes from the boat into handles, so he had something to hang on to.

"Then I saw the guys about 30 metres away. Buzz was dragging the skipper and they were getting smashed by the waves."

Buzz and John fought their way to the boat where they clung on to the ropes. The three men were back together but their horrific ordeal was far from over.

The boat was slowly drifting out to sea. All they could hear was the sound of waves breaking and their own ragged breathing.  Injured, with no way to call for help, and with a wrecked, upturned boat, Oisin realised how utterly helpless they were:

“We were shaking, we were pretty cold. We were looking to the heavens waiting, but there was nothing. I said my goodbyes. I said my goodbyes a couple of times, actually. I knew the situation was bad.”

But Coastguard radio operators had their backs.  Having not heard from the men since they started cross the Bar, they raised the alarm and started searching for them. A Coastguard rescue vessel and two helicopters were immediately scrambled.

The search was long and arduous and three hours later, they had not located the men.  But the tide had turned and Oisin, John and Buzz were finally drifting back to shore. When they finally heard waves crashing against a beach, they were exhilarated; but then they pictured their boat being picked up by the surf and hurled onto the sand like a missile.

"We had to get away from the boat ... We had to get away from it, we didn't want to be anywhere near it when we hit the [surf]line,” said Oisin.

So they swam away, but the sea was rough as anything. "We all got in the water and the next wave, we were all separated. The last time I saw John he was on his back."

Oisin and Buzz managed to stagger onto the sand. But, there was no sign of John. Oisin kept watch for as long as he could. “I waited for 15 to 20 minutes but I was so cold. I was shaking so much, I couldn’t see, I had to go…” he said. 

They thought they would never see their mate John again.

But the rescue crews had finally found John at sea – injured, exhausted and probably hypothermic, but alive.  He was given first aid and airlifted to hospital where he had surgery on his broken pelvis. They had all survived.

Oisin and Buzz paid a visit to the Coastguard volunteers a few days later: "We are so very fortunate. It could have been very different. We did everything right, but the unexpected still happened. I don't know what to say to show how grateful and appreciative we are to the Coastguard, and everyone who helped in the search."

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