Mayday Appeal 2017
The phone wakes you up. It’s 1.12am.
A stranger’s soft and anxious voice asks for your help.
“It’s Rua. I don’t know what to do. The boys still haven’t come back. They’re out there – I don’t know what to do. Can you please help??”
You can hear the panic in her tired voice. Her mates are lost at sea in the middle of the night.
I’m sure you may have experienced that sinking feeling when loved ones haven’t come home on time. If so, you’ll know how worried and helpless Rua was feeling.
The ‘boys’, Shaun, Jason and Jesse, were long overdue from their fishing trip in the Far North’s Rangaunu Bay. They’d set out at Friday lunchtime; it was now the early hours of Saturday morning and they hadn’t been heard from since. They weren’t answering their phones.
The situation was extremely serious. The weather had become horrible with extreme easterly winds and rain. There had been few other boats at sea that day, so no-one could have seen if anything had happened to them. No distress calls had been received; there was no clue as to where they were.
Coastguard radio operators made an ‘all stations’ broadcast - an urgent call for help to any boats in the area. The message was to be repeated every half hour.
This was the start of their huge task: coordinating a difficult search and rescue mission. Every detail was important, and every action crucial.
The Coastguard volunteers called Rua back, and asked her to go down to the boat ramp to leave a note on Shaun’s car, in case he came back. They asked her if she could see any lights out at sea, clues to where the men might be. But as she frantically scanned the horizon, all was completely dark.
At 2.48am, volunteers at Coastguard Houhora were woken and told what was happening. With no clues to help find the missing men, an aerial search was also needed. Coastguard Northland Air Patrol, based at KeriKeri Airport, started preparing their plane and crew for a search at first light.
Just before 6am, as a grey dawn finally began to break, the Coastguard rescue boat and plane started to search the Rangaunu Bay area.
The search plane flew over popular fishing spots. But an hour afterwards, there was still no sign of the missing men, or their boat.
Meanwhile, the Coastguard rescue vessel searched the Rangaunu Harbour. Their methodical East-West, South-North search pattern would take hours to complete.
But then the air patrol – the eyes in the sky - took a crucial step that rescued Shaun, Jason and Jesse. Pilot Murray Miskelly used his training, experience and gut feeling to search the more remote and wilder parts of Rangaunu Bay.
Scouring the new search area, at 7.12am the air patrol sighted a partially submerged vessel in the water. It had to be the missing men. The Coastguard rescue boat sped through the rough seas as quickly as possible.
And 12 minutes later, the air patrol spotted three men stranded on a small rocky island.
“They were waving, really waving,” said Murray, the Coastguard pilot. “Where they were, at high tide you couldn’t see the rocks. And they’d been there overnight.”
The plane circled the island and the rescue boat headed towards it, across the choppy sea to reach the stranded fishermen. By the time the volunteers arrived it was 8am, two hours after they’d set out. Powerful waves were breaking on the rocks.
It was actually the worst possible spot that the men could have gone fishing that day. The rising Easterly winds came across the open ocean and battered the exposed islands.
Can you imagine the fatigue and dread that they’d experienced?
The men were stuck like limpets to the rocks. Their ashen faces were drained of energy. The Coastguard crew were the first people they’d seen since the day before.
Coastguard Houhora’s top priority was to find out how they were. One was in a very bad state – he had “a belly full of seawater,” cuts to his head and legs, and was numb with hypothermia.
They were wearing only light clothing - Shaun was just in a pair of shorts. They were all suffering from their night on an exposed rock in bad weather, struggling to battle the tide.
The men told the Coastguard crew that their boat had rolled at 4pm the previous day, and Shaun had helped his mates to swim to the rocks. The capsize had ditched their gear into the sea, stranding them with no way of calling for help.
There was a terrifying period around midnight, at high tide, when the sea completely submerged the rocks. All they could do was cling on and pray they didn’t get swept away. But now help had arrived.
The Coastguard crew told Shaun to swim out to the rescue boat. He made it, and was wrapped in a thick blanket. But the ordeal wasn’t over for Jason and Jesse. They were so hypothermic and weak that trying to swim out to the rescue boat was too risky.
The Coastguard crew knew what to do. Unable to get them off the island by boat, and with the tide rising, they radioed for a rescue helicopter. They kept the men’s spirits up and monitored their health.
And then, at 10am, the rescue helicopter winched them on board, and off to hospital.
From being woken at 2.48am to finally getting back to base at 11.49am, the Coastguard team had drawn upon years of training and experience to go the extra mile.
And after sixteen gruelling hours stranded at sea, Shaun, Jason and Jesse were on their way home.
But our passionate volunteers often have only small coastal communities to draw upon for support. They serve from Houhora in the north to Bluff in the south. You can make a difference to volunteers near you by making a donation towards their training.
Each week, we need to find over $5,000 to train our fantastic volunteer crews.
Volunteers learn essential skills, including search techniques, first aid, and VHF communications. For three fishermen lost in the Far North, that training saved their lives.
Will you give life-saving training to one of our volunteers? A gift today will give them vital observation skills training, to help spot stranded survivors like Shaun, Jason and Jesse, and bring them home.
Your support will give our crews the training they need to do what they do best – save lives at sea. Donate now.