Severe weather hampers rescue of stricken yacht
Sunday, March 18 2018: Shortly after 1800 hours last night, Coastguard Radio was advised of a distress call from two men on board a 12m sailing vessel in difficulty off the Northland coast. Their location was given as approximately 10-15 nautical miles east of the Whangarei Harbour entrance, with the pair unable to reach the safety of the port due to large seas knocking the vessel down.
Conditions at the time were recorded as winds gusting over 40 knots off Tutukaka, with the sea state just short of 6 metres, showers and poor visibility.
Coastguard volunteers on board Tutukaka Rescue were tasked to locate the vessel, further confirm their location and provide better detail on the next course of action based on the weather conditions.
At 1930 hours Tutukaka Rescue departed and made for the last known location of the yacht. 30 minutes later the yacht was located 4.5nm NE of Taiharuru Head having headed further out to sea and experiencing problems with their compass and electronic navigation equipment. The Coastguard Rescue Vessel provided them with a bearing to take them towards Bream Head and with the Coastguard volunteers able to ascertain that the men on board the yacht were shaken but otherwise in good spirits, the decision was made for the rescue vessel to depart the scene given the conditions, with Coastguard Radio continuing to monitor the yacht's progress.
Shortly after, Coastguard Whangarei’s CIRCA Rescue was tasked from Marsden Cove Marina, to check if the sea state was more favourable from there for a rescue. The crew on board advised that the Northport Wave Buoy was reporting maximum wave heights of around 5m and would progress as far as Busby Head then reassess the conditions. 30 minutes into their trip the crew of the rescue vessel advised Coastguard Radio that they were unable to continue due to the height of the seas and lack of visibility, they returned to Marsden Cove to remain on standby.
The distressed yacht was advised of the situation and requested to change their heading so that they were facing into the oncoming sea and heading off shore. Given the vessel was now running low on diesel and had also run out of drinking water, Coastguard Radio advised that once they had reached a safe distance from shore, to cut their engine to preserve fuel and lay a sea anchor for the night. Regular contact was maintained and shortly before midnight the yacht advised that their hydraulic steering had jammed and they were no longer able to maintain course.
With the situation worsening for the two on board, the need for a more immediate rescue was made clear and options for an air rescue investigated. A request was made for the vessel to set off their EPIRB to provide a more accurate position, however this was hampered as from between midnight and 0030 hours this morning, communication with the vessel was believed to be lost with no response from the vessel when contacted.
With communications re-established around 0100 hours this morning, a new location was given, now placing them only 0.5nm off shore from Kauri Mountain, northern end of Ocean Beach. With the location uncertainty, EPRIB activation was requested and an EPIRB signal received by RCCNZ, but no location advice. The yacht crew advised they felt dangerously close to shore, activated another Personal Locator Beacon and inflated their lifejackets.
Shortly after 0200 hours HELIMED1 departed Whangarei for the assumed position of the Yacht however this attempt was again hindered due to weather and lack of ambient light making the night visibility ineffective. The Yacht was advised that the safest course of action was to head as far off shore as possible, deploy a sea anchor and main anchor and wait for daylight.
“In situations like this, the safety of everyone involved is carefully assessed,” says Coastguard Operations Manager Ray Burge. “We have to make sure that everyone – the two people on the yacht and our volunteers, are going to get home safely and last night the conditions were so severe, that this was an unlikely outcome".
“Our Radio Operators have been vigilantly monitoring conditions overnight and been in communication with the yachties as much as possible to assess the situation on board and provide guidance and reassurance.”
As of first light this morning, sea conditions have been reassessed and CIRCA Rescue redeployed to attempt to reach the yacht with additional diesel and water for the vessel however with seas still reaching up to 4 metres and winds of 40 knots the latest attempt to reach the yacht has been called off with CIRCA Rescue returning to port. Strong contact with the vessel is being kept with Coastguard Radio from the Regional Operations Centre in Auckland with Duty Officer Nico Doodeman reporting that both on board the yacht are safe and whilst its been a long night given the circumstances are well. The yacht will continue to circle out at sea until conditions are reassessed this afternoon. A rescue helicopter continues to be on standby should the situation arrise where the two people are required to abandon the vessel.
"These are frustrating circumstances as our volunteers train incredibly hard provide the countries primary marine search and rescue operation and it's with the communities support that we are able to equip our rescue vessels with the best equipment to do the job but the weather conditions are such that a rescue attempt of both the people and the vessel at this stage is simply too dangerous. The safety of our people and those we are rescuing is paramount, at this stage both onboard aren't in immediate danger but understandably exhausted and ready to get into calm waters.
"We're hopeful that conditions will calm this afternoon to make this possible or a decision will be made around an air rescue", says Mr Burge. "The incident has now been underway for over 14 hours, I take my hat off to the volunteers that have given it their all and our SAR Partners working alongside us for the best outcome".