Missing Kayaker: They Saved My Life
A 10-minute paddle across the harbour turned into a seven hour ordeal
for 62-year-old Mark Morgan of Whanga

Above: Mark with the Coastguard Whangaerei Crew 

Mark works as a fitter at the New Zealand Refinery at Marsden Point and often paddles to work from his home near Reotahi when conditions allow. It was the end of the day on 9 June when he headed down to his kayak to begin the journey home. Conditions were picking up as per the forecast but still seemed manageable. Mark donned his gear including a lifejacket and began his journey across the harbour. Mark recalls his ordeal:

“I set off from the refinery as I usually do – the conditions are ok but picking up and forecast to worsen. I am going well and just minutes away from reaching Reotahi when my kayak catches a down draft and flips me out. I immediately reach for my lifejacket cord but it isn’t there. I finally find it on the other side, yank it and it inflates. I catch my breath and try to climb back into the kayak but my lifejacket is making it difficult. I try to deflate my lifejacket a little so I can climb back in but I’m cold and in shock and it’s just not working.

Then I remember I have a knife in my bag in the front hatch of the kayak so I use it to puncture my lifejacket. Now I try for the first time to get back in the kayak but it keeps rolling over and throwing me back in the water. I look over and I see Little Munroe Bay. I think to myself “yep I’m all right; as long as I can get back in the kayak, I’ll be ok”

I manage to get on the kayak a couple of times but the water in the hull is slopping around and whenever I finally get upright it just flicks me back out. I am quickly reaching exhaustion. By now I’m at Pippi Bank, I look across to the fairway buoy and I’m shocked at how fast the tide is moving. I know I can’t make another attempt to get back in the kayak as if I lose it I’m toast. I’ve lost the use of my lifejacket but I’ve got the kayak - I make the decision to just hang on.

I’m physically wrecked. Feeling cramp starting to set in I know hypothermia is next and this kayak is my only lifeline. I’ve just got to try and hold on as long as I can. The strong tide keeps pushing me under. I feel absolutely distraught. I’m tired but desperate to pull myself up onto the kayak. 

My survival instincts kick in; mustering all my strength and balance I manage to pull myself up and stay on for a little bit but the kayak has taken on a lot of water and is near sinking. The storm continues to build and my semi-submerged kayak and I are at the mercy of the terrible weather. In strong seas, total darkness and swiftly drifting out the harbour I am alone with nothing but my thoughts. “Will I make it?”

Meanwhile, Mark has been reported missing by his wife and a search and rescue effort is underway. The volunteer crew from Coastguard Whangarei have received a pager message alerting them to the incident. Leaving the comforts of home they head out into the elements on board Circa Rescue and put their training to the test spending the next five hours searching for Mark.

With support from the Northland Emergency Services Helicopter, Mark is spotted on the last search sweep using infrared goggles which picked up the light on the back of his lifejacket. Circa Rescue arrived to Mark’s location within minutes, he was barely afloat but still with his kayak and alive.

It’s with tears in his eyes that Mark recalls the moment the rescue crew spotted him with the spot light and pulled him from the water.

“I was coherent and could recall what had gone wrong. The crew tried to recover my kayak but it was full of water, weighing about 200kg.” Mark had twisted his arm through the safety rope of the kayak so even if he’d been rendered unconscious, he would have stayed attached. Rescue Skipper John Haselden later credited Mark for this smart and possibly life saving move.

Given the conditions it took half an hour for the rescue volunteer crew to return Mark to the north side of the harbour. “It was a pretty special feeling when we got to the wharf where Mark’s family and friends were anxiously waiting together with the Police” remarks John. “We were just so elated we found him alive”.

Thanks to the remarkable efforts of the volunteer crew on board Circa Rescue Mark was able to walk off the rescue boat to an awaiting ambulance and is just so thankful for the efforts of the rescue crew that brought him home. “They saved my life.”

“We were just so elated we found him alive” John Haselden, Volunteer Rescue Skipper

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