In the business world, if you miss a deadline or forget to back up your PC, the consequences can be dire, but they are unlikely to be fatal. On a rescue helicopter, however, when things go wrong the consequences can be deadly for us and the people we are trying to save. Even with all our training, procedures and well-maintained equipment, things can go wrong — sometimes horribly wrong.
It is impossible to plan for every imaginable scenario so continual training is vital, as is ensuring the helicopter and equipment are fit for purpose. Thinking on our feet is crucial as when it is all going pear-shaped, the ability to remain calm and, literally, on the fly come up with Plan B, Plan C or as many as are needed to achieve a rescue is critical.
Saturday, 27 December 1997, was one of the days when this ability was needed. It started as a busy but ordinary day for the team with a flurry of rescues that kicked off with a pre-dawn call-out at 4am.
Steve was the pilot, John the crewman and Dean the paramedic on the helicopter heading out to an accidental shooting at Pelorus Sound in Marlborough. It was a straightforward rescue and the victim was winched from the bush and in Wellington Hospital by 6am.
Steve continued as the day-shift helicopter pilot and I took over as the crewman. Around 11.30am, Kevin Smythe joined us as the paramedic for a mission to Tora, a tiny settlement in the Wairarapa, where an elderly man had fallen on rocks.
It was another uneventful job and he was in Wellington Hospital by 1pm. By 2pm the helicopter was clean and restocked, the paperwork done, and we were contemplating what to have for lunch.
But the day wasn’t over yet and at 4pm, with paramedic Iain Mackay on board, we headed to the scene of a major car accident at Pukerua Bay on the Kapiti Coast.
It was a hell of a smash, with a lot of injured people and several still trapped in their vehicles. While the Fire Service worked to cut people free, we ferried the most seriously injured person and another less injured to Wellington Hospital before heading back to collect two more.
As we headed back, Steve and I agreed we were ready to put our feet up and have an afternoon nap after we returned to base when John, who was manning the emergency line, called us.
He had been advised by the Rescue Coordination Centre that several yachts taking part in the Wellington to Akaroa race were in trouble. The race takes the boats across Cook Strait and down the east coast of the South Island, a demanding stretch of water at the best of times, but the wind and weather had proven to be stronger than forecast. The race had almost been called off due to concern over the conditions, but the yachts headed out of Wellington Harbour with a brisk nor-wester at their back, which had swiftly built to gale-force winds.
Strangely, instead of a specific task, we were asked by RCC to take on as much fuel as possible and head south. We would be given more details as soon as possible.
We dropped our last two patients from the car accident at Wellington Hospital and returned to base to set up for a marine search and rescue. Steve was continuing as the pilot, John came aboard as the winch operator, and I was to be an observer and/or swimmer, ready to go down on the winch, if required.
Although no marine rescue is ever the same, by this time I had done many of them so I had few concerns as we headed out of Wellington into Cook Strait at about 5.30pm. Being summer, we had about three and a half hours of daylight left although the helicopter only held about two and a half hours’ worth of fuel.
The wind had hit a constant 60 knots, which is considered a Category 1 storm with winds about 119–153 kilometres per hour (74–95 mph). It was right on our tail, so it was going to be a fast trip south!
A few minutes into the flight, RCC rang with the details of our rescue. A crewman had been injured and needed to be winched from a yacht lying roughly 100 kilometres southeast of Wellington and about 28 kilometres offshore from the South Island.
The yacht, named Terminator, was a 40-foot Elliot with nine crew members. It had lost its rudder when the yacht broached earlier in the day, meaning it was unable to steer. The crew had managed to rig up their emergency steering equipment, a required backup for an offshore yacht. Once it was in place, they had started their motor, but the yacht just went around in circles because the emergency rig was unable to provide enough steerage as they were being battered by 110–130 kilometre per hour winds and 10-metre-high waves.
Realising they needed help, the skipper requested a tow to shelter in the Marlborough Sounds. Unfortunately, no aid was readily avail-able. Conditions were too rough for the Cook Strait fast ferry and the bigger ferries couldn’t launch a rescue craft in the high seas so were also unable to assist.
A fishing boat was sent from Kaikoura but had to turn back due to the rough conditions.
The police launch Lady Liz III was already in Cook Strait helping other struggling boats and didn’t have enough fuel on board to get to the scene and then safely return to shore. They would have to return to port and refuel before they could head out to assist Terminator.
The crew was streaming sea anchors to slow down the boat’s drift as it floundered in the heavy seas. But with no steerage, the yacht was rolling dangerously in the big waves.
Several hours after requesting assistance, a massive wave knocked the yacht upside down. It had righted itself, but one of the crew had been thrown around inside the cabin and knocked unconscious.
The crew contacted RCC again and requested assistance for the injured crewman. Since we were already in the air, RCC directed us their way. A few minutes later RCC called and told us to abandon the mission and return to base. After a few choice words and grumbles, Steve turned the helicopter into the gale-force wind and we headed home.
For some reason I’ve never understood, the yacht’s crew was told by RCC that if they wanted a helicopter evacuation for their injured crewman they would need to declare a Mayday right then. The crew were confused by the need to declare the Mayday. Surely an injured person was reason enough to send the helicopter? The crew reasoned that the yacht was not sinking and, by this time, the injured man had regained consciousness and said he could stay on board, so the crew didn’t feel declaring a Mayday was warranted. This was when we were stood down.
The yacht continued to be pounded by the seas and the crew debated whether a Mayday was necessary. There were two separate wave patterns and the yacht was being knocked over 70 or 80 degrees by waves every few minutes, so some believed another rollover was only a matter of time. They knew that if the yacht did roll again they could lose their mast, and with the approaching darkness and increasing distance from land, this was becoming a recipe for disaster. The debate continued until the injured crewman became unusually quiet. Now there was agreement that a Mayday had to be declared.
By this time, we were back at base and refuelled, ready to go. A quick weather check and briefing, and we were off.
Given the challenging and deteriorating conditions, we discussed the best options for getting the crew safely off the yacht. Sea rescues in a severe storm like this one are dangerous. We would have to contend with constant high winds, unpredictable gusts and heavy seas. The yacht was lying broadside to the waves so its mast and steel rigging would be flaying about, a threat to the helicopter if it got too close. Add to that the difficulty of the people moving about on a heaving deck. It also meant that I could be injured if I was winched aboard. We agreed that I would only be winched onto the yacht if there were no other option.
As we neared the yacht, John contacted the crew by marine radio. They advised us that the injured man had been briefly knocked out, but fortunately was now conscious and alert. John briefed them on how the rescue would proceed. The winch hook with two rescue harnesses attached would be lowered to the yacht. The harnesses are like a large horse collar that are connected to the winch hook which is then locked. Once on deck, the sailors would have to put them on over their head and under their arms.
WHEN BOTH WERE in their harnesses, they were to give a thumbs-up to indicate they were ready to be lifted. We would pull them off the yacht and winch them to the helicopter. John told them to expect to be dragged through the sea after they came off the deck. He advised them that we would pick up four people on this flight, return to base for fuel, and then come back and rescue the final five. They read back the instructions calmly and clearly, increasing our confidence in them.
Maybe this would go all right, I thought.
As we approached the reported GPS location of the yacht, all we could see was churning white water and spray. We were only 100 metres above the waves and being knocked about by the strong wind. It was clear this was going to be a tricky rescue, but we couldn’t start until we found the yacht!
We called them on the radio and they reconfirmed their position, but we couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see us, so we asked them to activate their emergency locator beacon.
Seconds later, we located them a short distance away. The yacht was rising and falling in the waves, and even after we spotted them, it was proving hard to keep the white yacht in sight amid the foaming white water and spray that engulfed them.
Steve took us down, and once we were in position, John began lowering the rescue harnesses. However, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to work. The lightweight harnesses were being blown about in the high winds and were not going to make it to the yacht. We quickly discounted the idea of using our hi-line, a rope with a weighted sand bag at the end, because the high seas meant the helicopter couldn’t remain within 50 metres of the yacht and that was the length of the rope.
Normally, we would position the yacht forward of the helicopter and off to the left: at the 11 o’clock position on a clock. This time, John asked Steve to reposition the helicopter further upwind of the boat so that he could try something new. John re-lowered the harnesses and, sure enough, they drifted towards the yacht — a technique we hadn’t used before — but proving the theory that we always needed to think on our feet and come up with as many new plans as required.
After a couple of minutes, and with about 36 metres of winch cable played out, the harnesses reached Terminator. Two of the crew put the harnesses over their heads, pulled it up under their arms, and gave a thumbs-up. John got Steve to manoeuvre the helicopter back towards the yacht while he winched the cable in as fast as possible.
When the time was right, John called for Steve to pull up and away from the yacht. As expected, the crewmen were briefly dragged through the water before they began rising towards the helicopter.
However, as they came towards us, John and I both noticed that the two sailors didn’t look overly comfortable, and something seemed off with the way the harness sat under their arms.
We got them on board safely and then tried to figure out what was wrong. We assumed we had not given them enough time to correctly position the harness. As John began sending the harnesses back to the yacht, I radioed them and advised them to take a bit more time to ensure that it was secure under their arms.
The two rescued sailors watched out the rear window of the helicopter in dismay at the sea state that they could now see from above and wondered aloud how we could carry out a rescue in such severe conditions.
It took significant coordination, skill and teamwork between John and Steve to get the harnesses back to the yacht. This time, John waited longer to ensure that the sailors had time to get them on correctly. Nonetheless, as they were heading up, John could see something was still wrong. One of the guys, who we later found out was Chris Webb, was clearly uncomfortable and his legs were flailing about. John asked Steve to lower the helicopter as close to the sea as possible.
I was next to John lying on my stomach with my head out the door watching the rescue while the video camera on my helmet recorded the events unfolding.
When the two crewmen were only a metre below the skid, the un-thinkable happened. Chris suddenly went limp, his hands dropped from the hook, his arms came over his head and he slipped out of the rescue harness plunging about 10 metres back into the turbulent sea.
Despite the momentary feeling of horror, my overriding concern was to keep him in sight, but he immediately disappeared below the surface among the churning waves.
John stayed calm and told Steve what had happened. Our priority was to get the other sailor on board. While Steve turned the helicopter to try and keep track of where Chris had fallen into the sea, John continued to winch him in. He came on board looking shocked and lethargic. We got him into the cabin and instructed the two sailors already aboard to care for him so we could focus on finding Chris.
Although we didn’t show it to the rescued sailors, John, Steve and I were deeply upset at what had happened. This had never occurred before, and clearly it wasn’t supposed to happen now — we were there to save people, not make things worse!
I didn’t want to say it aloud, but it had been difficult enough spotting a 40-foot yacht in these seas, so how were we going to find a single person? To make matters worse, we had not seen him resurface after he hit the water. This was going to be harder than searching for a needle in a haystack because, unlike the needle, there was no guarantee Chris would be on the surface and even able to be found!
We had moved several hundred metres away from the yacht while bringing the third man on board, so we worked our way back and tried to figure out where we had been in relation to it when Chris fell into the sea. John searched from the left of the helicopter while I searched from the right, directly behind Steve. While we continued searching, I radioed the yacht. The conversation was brief — could they see the crewman who fell from the harness into the sea? ‘No.’ And could they estimate where we were in relation to them when he fell? ‘Around where you are now.’
The Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) in Wellington heard our end of the radio conversation, and as this was the first they knew we were having a problem, a few seconds after I finished talking with the yacht they called asking for an update.
There was nothing anyone else could do to help us; either we were going to find Chris or not. The seas were too rough to send rescue boats, and by the time another helicopter reached us, it would be too late. I responded that we would update them as soon as we could and then lowered the volume on the marine radio. Right now, outside chatter would just be a distraction.
We were frantically trying to find Chris, but the conditions were atrocious and fuel was running low. Steve told us we had ten more minutes of search time left before we’d have to head back to Wellington. I don’t think I had ever felt so helpless during a mission — this was not how it was supposed to go!
Then something caught my eye at the top of a wave but disap-peared as quickly as I saw it. I had glimpsed a bit of orange — Chris’s survival suit — popping up on top of a wave and then disappearing into the trough. ‘Target 2 o’clock,’ I called into my microphone, pointing my arm towards the target, the standard procedure that helps us keep track of where something is, even if I couldn’t see it at that moment.
Neither Steve nor John had spotted what I saw but moved to where I thought I had sighted him. Seconds later, Steve and then John saw him as well. It was Chris and he was conscious and waving at us. He was alive!
But the clock was ticking; fuel was getting low and time was running out to complete the rescue. We decided to lower me into the sea without disconnecting from the winch hook. If I came off the hook in those seas, then it was likely they would lose sight of us, and it would be almost impossible to reconnect us again. We had to do this now or the helicopter would have to return to Wellington leaving Chris floundering in the sea. That was not an option.
I removed my helmet, attached the winch hook to my harness, gave John a thumbs-up and was out the door. I had been in the helicopter looking down at waves this big before, but I had never been sent into seas this big. Then the adrenaline kicked in and there was nothing else in my mind — I was totally focused. I kept my eye on Chris as best I could, but as I was spinning around on the hook, keeping him in sight was hard.
Suddenly I was in the water. Huge waves of cold salt water slammed into my body as I was dragged towards Chris — the immersion suit offered little protection in these conditions. As I came through a breaking wave, there he was, directly in front of me. He reached out for me as I reached for him, and then we were together. Later he told me the first thing I shouted at him over the howl of the gale and helicopter engine was the same thing I always say — ‘G’day, I’m Dave.’
I told him I was going to put him back in the same harness he had fallen from, but I was with him, and there was no way I was going to let him fall out again.
The most dangerous part of being in the water and being attached to the winch hook is winch cable management. Since the waves were so big and the helicopter was being blown around so much, John had to leave me with enough spare cable so I wasn’t pulled out of the water or away from Chris before I was ready. However, the winch cable is relatively thin and made of steel; if any of the excess cable accidentally got wrapped around a limb or a neck and the cable went taut, it could maim or kill us. I managed to keep the cable clear as we got the harness in place around Chris. Our heads would stay on our bodies for now!
I locked my legs firmly around Chris’s legs and gave John a thumbs-up, indicating that we were ready to be pulled up. I carefully managed the cable and as the slack disappeared, we were dragged through the water towards the helicopter. As we emerged from the waves, I started to tell Chris that we’d be okay now but before I could finish my sentence we got hit by a wave. I shut up at this point, keeping a firm hold on him as we spun around, making our way up to the helicopter. Thirty seconds later we were safely at the skid, and then made our way into the cabin.
The look on John’s face clearly reflected the relief that we were all feeling at that moment. As I came through the door he had a huge grin, and I wasn’t sure if he was going to hug me or kiss me — this was one of the scariest moments of the day! He settled on a manly pat on the shoulder, and once we were off the winch hook, John secured it, shut the door and we were on our way home.
John radioed the yacht and MOC to let them know that we had found Chris, he was okay, and we were heading back to Wellington for fuel. He also requested an ambulance to meet us to check the four sailors we had aboard.
Remarkably, our job was only half done. The three of us were tired and ready for a break, but we had five more people to rescue. But before we did that, we had to figure out what had gone wrong.
Our rescue harness had been specially developed to rescue unconscious people from the water. As the harness tightened, it was supposed to lock around and keep hold of the person, especially if they couldn’t hold on themselves.
All four of the crew reported the same problem. They told us that their lifejackets had been driven up into their throats and choked them. When we examined their lifejackets, we found that they were very thick and didn’t have a crotch strap — which would pass from the front to the back of the lifejacket between their legs and prevent the jacket from riding up.
We surmised that our rescue harness and the offshore lifejackets were incompatible. As our rescue harness tightened around the lifejacket, it forced it up to their throat. All of them experienced this, but in Chris’s case it choked him to the point of unconsciousness. As everything was saturated, when Chris passed out, his arms raised above his head and he slipped out of the harness.
Now that we thought that we understood the problem, we figured out a work-around, but we were not sure the remaining five sailors would like it.
It was a slow trip back home into the headwind. When we got to base, we helped the crew off the helicopter and refuelled. I was soaking wet so jumped into a new immersion suit, and within 20 minutes of landing we were heading back to the yacht.
As soon as we were close enough, John radioed the yacht and ran through what we thought had happened, and why, and how we had solved it.
‘You guys need to work together on this. Just before you get into the rescue harness, you need to remove your lifejacket. If you come up to the helicopter without a lifejacket I guarantee you will not fall out of the harness; however, if you get swept off the deck between removing your jacket and getting in the harness, then you will probably not be able to be rescued.’
John released the transmit button and we waited almost 15 seconds for a response, and when it finally came, it made the three of us laugh out loud: ‘Pardon?’
We assumed that they had misheard John with his English accent, so I gave the briefing again in my American accent. We could hear the doubt and worry in their voices, but they agreed that they would do this.
We tracked in on the emergency locator signal and part two of the rescue began. Steve and John were well practised at this by now and it went smoothly. The first two people came up without any signs of discomfort. Since there were now three of them left, the next winch up was with only one person — that way the remaining two could assist each other into the harness. On the third winch, the last two came off the yacht.
With darkness approaching, we headed back to Wellington, land-ing at the base around 9.30pm. By now there was a party happening there. Some friends of the yacht crew had arrived, as had TV news crews and newspaper reporters. After we cleaned the helicopter and refuelled it, ready for the next mission, I had a quick shower and change of clothes and then joined the party.
It was a huge day and by now I was exhausted, but never had I ever been so relieved. Chris was relatively unscathed, apart from a chipped vertebra, presumably from hitting the water hard after falling to the sea below.
There was even a happy ending for the yacht. The emergency beacon was still transmitting so several days later a fishing boat tracked the signal and recovered it for the owner.
In the days and weeks following the Terminator rescue, we had a close look at everything that had gone wrong and right on the day.
We sourced a new rescue harness, nicknamed a ‘nappy’ for ship and yacht rescues. With this model, the person being rescued sits in the harness instead of putting it over their head, so that the rescue harness and a lifejacket can’t affect each other.
More importantly, we had nine grateful sailors happy to have survived their ordeal. Chris and I became good friends and he buys me a beer every time we get together. Four years after the rescue, I was invited to Christchurch to help celebrate Chris’s fiftieth birth-day. Surrounded by many of his friends and relatives, someone made a toast to the helicopter crew who ensured that they all still had a son, father, uncle and friend.
It was a special celebration and again reminded me what a difference our team made, day in and day out.