Man overboard: 'I don't know how much longer I can hang on'

Len and his wife Heather with the Coastguard crew.

Len Dillon was desperately clinging to the back of his boat in a freezing, strong current.

"I don't know how much longer I can hang on," he told his wife Heather

The recently-retired veteran ambulance officer had an idea of his chances of survival.

And at that moment, it looked like the 79-year-old might soon be swept to his death in the Hauraki Gulf's Tiritiri Channel.

The Te Kauwhata couple are known for assisting with emergencies around the gulf.

They rescued four people from a sunken yacht several years ago and recently went to the aid of an injured woman on Kawau Island.

On Sunday, May 28, their own crisis unfolded.

While Heather was making a cup of tea in the galley of their Bridgedecker boat, Len was hauling up two fish when he tripped.

"I got one up and I turned around to get the other one . . . next minute I was on my way into the water," said Len, who was yesterday reunited with the volunteer Coastguard members who saved his life.

Grabbing on to the duckboard was all that stopped the strong current taking him away.

"I tried twice to get myself out of the water, but couldn't, and knew if I tried any more, all I was going to do was probably activate a crook heart and get myself all stressed.

"I said to Heather, I could survive like this, probably another quarter of an hour, then I'd be getting pretty worried."

The cold of the water - about 10C - was beginning to chill his body, already strained from clinging to his boat.

Weighed down with boots and heavy jeans, letting go would have meant quickly sinking to the bottom, if the tide didn't take him.

Everything seemed to fail at the worst possible time, Heather said.

The ladder Len could have climbed on to seized up and couldn't be pulled down. The radio was malfunctioning and couldn't make calls out.

Most other boats on the water that afternoon had returned to land, save for one that Heather hopelessly tried to signal by waving her arms.

Then she remembered her mobile phone.

"I really didn't think it would work, but I had my little address book and found the numbers for Coastguard and star-500 ... I think my fingers were starting to get a little bit shaky at that stage."

She found a signal.

Travelling any further likely could have put them out of range, and out of luck.

Back at Gulf Harbour, Coastguard skipper Lee Armstrong and crew members Tony Winyard, Marcus French, Trevor Moore and Rachel Segar were training when the call came in.

They headed out and about 10 minutes later, at the northern end of the Whangaparoa passage, they sighted a man clinging to a boat.

After properly securing his lifejacket, it took four rescuers to haul him out of the water.

"We could obviously see that he was cold and pretty exhausted," Winyard said.

"As soon as he was on board the vessel we sat him down, out of the wind, covered him in a couple of massive blankets to keep him warm, then did an assessment."

Winyard agreed Len wouldn't have lasted much longer than his 30 minutes in the channel.

"If it had been another minute or two, it would have been a completely different story."

Heather noted how her husband was shaking uncontrollably when loaded on to the Westpac Rescue helicopter.

His feet were still chalk-white the next day.

The couple were quick to make improvements to their boat - Len joked he'd been given a "stern talking to" by his daughter - and said they remain indebted to the Coastguard.

"They're a critical part of the safety of boating, you know you can call on the radio and there's help there," he said.

"We've helped an awful lot of people, but this is the first time we've needed it."

Coastguard volunteers go from suit to sea

The tale highlighted the importance of those who donate their time to service - something now being marked by National Volunteer Week.

"Many people don't realise that each crew member on our rescue vessels and every support person back at our 63 Coastguard units across the country are volunteers," Coastguard chief executive Patrick Holmes said.

As with any other emergency service, Coastguard volunteers were available 24/7 and could be called out in an instant.

"They could be out with their family or busy at work, but when their pager goes off they will drop everything to go and help."

More than 2200 Coastguard volunteers gave more than 300,000 hours to help keep people safe on the water last year - bringing more than 6400 Kiwis home safely.

"Being a volunteer with Coastguard is a big commitment, not only for the volunteer themselves but also their families and employers.

"National Volunteer Week provides a great opportunity to recognise and celebrate the role all these people play in keeping our communities safe at sea."

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