Rescued after a sixteen-hour ordeal at sea
Three men were lost for sixteen gruelling hours, on a slippery rocky outcrop that was under water at high tide. Their boat had sunk and they had no way of calling for help.
At around 2am, the day after Boxing Day, three men were reported missing. Volunteers from Coastguard Northland Air Patrol and Coastguard Houhora started preparing for a difficult rescue mission. The stakes were high: all they knew at that point was that the three men were lost in the Rangauru harbour – a large area of rough sea and jagged rocks less than 70km from Cape Reinga.
The conditions were foul; extreme easterly winds and rain meant that sea conditions were rough. There were few other boats on the water that might have seen them get into trouble.
At first light, the Northland Air Patrol team scrambled their aircraft, and started their search over popular fishing spots in the areas they’d pinpointed with the search team on the ground.
But then they took a decisive step that may well have saved three lives; they broadened their search over the more remote and wilder parts of the bay.
After twenty minutes of patient observation, success: they spotted the partially-submerged boat along with the three men.
The air patrol volunteers radioed the co-ordinates to base, and two Coastguard Houhora rescue crews launched into the rough seas to try and bring the men safely home.
Coastguard Houhora have only been part of the Coastguard family for three years. Like many Coastguard crews in smaller New Zealand communities, they face a struggle to recruit volunteers, and do not have the use of a dedicated Coastguard rescue vessel. At the time of the rescue they had just six trained crew who used their own boats to answer the call for help.
The journey across the choppy water took a full two hours for the first rescue vessel, and when they arrived on the scene they were the first faces the men had seen since the previous afternoon.
“They were waving, really waving. Where they were, at high tide you can’t see the rocks and they had been there overnight,” said Murray Miskelly, Coastguard Northland Air Patrol’s President. The air patrol crew found the men where no-one else had thought to look.
The top priority was to find out how the men were. One of them was quite poorly; he’d swallowed a lot of sea water, his head and legs were cut, and he was experiencing hypothermia. All were suffering from the effects of spending a night on a rock in bad weather, battling the tide.
The men told the Coastguard crew that their boat had rolled at 4pm the previous day. They had swum to the safety of the rocks, remaining there overnight as a high tide washed over them.
The second Coastguard rescue crew then arrived on the scene with food and warm clothing. After getting some of his strength back, one of the survivors, a strong swimmer, swam safely to the boat where he received immediate medical attention.
But the ordeal wasn’t over for the two other men; the Coastguard crews decided that it would be too risky to try and transfer them by sea. They knew what to do: they radioed for a rescue helicopter, kept the men’s spirits up and monitored their health, and at 10am the Northland Electricity helicopter winched them to safety.
Sixteen hours after they set out, and after a dire emergency in a remote and wild sea, the men were heading home.
The Coastguard volunteers involved on that day were later awarded for their professionalism and skill, receiving a NZSAR Certificate of Achievement for Operational Activity.
The crews at Coastguard Houhora and Coastguard Northland Air Patrol are great examples of what makes Coastguard great: passionate, skilled, determined volunteers doing their best for their small communities, using their limited resources to save lives – simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Thank you so much for supporting them.
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