Rescuers save injured skipper and yacht

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 40, June 2012

A skipper who was the subject of a successful medical evacuation counts himself very lucky to have been airlifted to hospital in time to save his hand – and to have had other rescuers step in as back-up crew and return his yacht safely to port.
The Bintang
Maritime New Zealand ©2019
Bintang is a 14 Metre Bermudan sloop built in 1974, which David and Kate bought in 2004.

David and Kate Lackey have been sailing since their teens and have completed numerous offshore passages without incident – until now. David has been a flag officer of both the Royal Port Nicholson and Royal Suva Yacht clubs, and chaired the NZ Yachting Federation’s (now Yachting NZ) Offshore Committee.

Over the past three summers, the longtime sailors have spent 13 months cruising New Zealand’s coastline on their yacht, Bintang. On 29 March this year, the couple left Waiheke for Wellington, making way in reasonable weather conditions.

Bintang rounded Cape Reinga in about 18 knots of wind and David was expecting east-to-southeasterly winds of 20 knots or less for most of the passage to Wellington, based on the MetVUW forecast 24 hours earlier off Cape Karikari, before the yacht lost internet connection.

David described what happened next. “By the time we had passed inside Pandora Bank, we were getting 30 knots southeast and higher gusts, and I decided to reduce to headsail only, fetch off into deep water and, if necessary, heave to overnight.

“Going forward to lower the main, I noticed that the anchor was banging up and down on the spare man and the plow itself had come off the roller. The anchor is secured by taking up any slack in the chain so that the hook of the plow is firmly held under the roller. A lashing held the shackle end of the anchor on the spare man.

“Clearly, the windlass clutch had eased the chain. To get it back in place, it was necessary to lift the plow back onto the roller. I was lifting the front of the anchor back on to the roller when we buried the bow in solid water.

“I should have let go but didn’t, and when I again tried to lift the anchor I noticed that my right middle finger was hanging by a thread of skin. I hadn’t felt a thing!”

As the couple were trying to deal with the injury, Bintang was picked up by a large wave and accidentally gybed, in winds now closer to 40 knots. Several mainsail slides broke, but they managed to get the main down and stowed, rolled up most of the headsail and ran back towards Cape Maria van Dieman.

David recalls, “Thinking I was probably out of VHF range, I set off the EPIRB but very quickly raised Cape Reinga radio with a mayday call. I closed down the EPIRB after 10 minutes or so, but it had been picked up by search and rescue and the vessel identified. They relayed to me the medical advice that I needed to get to hospital within 24 hours. Clearly this was not going to be possible in the wind strength and direction we now had.”

The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ), which had responded to the EPIRB, offered a helicopter to evacuate David and a replacement crew member to help Kate sail back to port. “Initially I felt reluctant, out of a misplaced sense of pride, but then realised that pride had no place in our current predicament,” says David. RCCNZ offered two crew and suggested that Kate also leave the boat, and they gratefully accepted.

“We spent an hour or so getting into the lee of Maria van Dieman,” says David. “I was a little concerned about this, as my electronic and paper charts of this area were very small scale and the bottom is shown as shifting sands. We edged in to within about 100 metres from the beach, adjacent to the big sandhills, and anchored in 10 metres of water. The wind was some 30 knots east-southeast in the bay. The water here was relatively flat, though the boat was surging backwards and forwards on the residual swells coming in from southwest around the cape.”

They gave their new position and a helicopter left Whangarei with replacement crewmen Boyd Smith and Dan Mann on board.

“We used the waiting time to clean up what looked like the scene of a particularly bloody murder,” says David.

The helicopter pilot, guided by the winchman, managed to get the aircraft above Bintang despite the surge, and the intensive care medic was soon on deck and attending to David’s injury. The new crew was lowered, and then Kate and David were winched up and flown to Whangarei Hospital.

Despite his condition, David remembers the skill and precision of the rescue operation, which took only about 20 minutes.

Boyd and Dan made way on Bintang that evening through the inside Cape Reinga passage, overnighting in Tom Bowling Bay. They arrived at Mangonui the next day after motor sailing at full revs and an average of 4 knots, in what they described as ‘nasty conditions’.

In hindsight, David says it hadn’t been appropriate to rely on the anchor winch to hold the anchor in the spare man roller. “It should have had a second lashing as a back-up,” he says. “But this system had worked for the 10 years we have had this boat and I had lapsed into complacency.”

He wishes he had taken more time to deal with the situation without putting himself and the yacht in danger. “In retrospect, I am lucky to still have a hand.”

He is extremely grateful to RCCNZ for effecting such a speedy evacuation, and to the replacement crew who returned Bintang to port. “I couldn’t believe my luck in having Boyd and Dan to clean up my mess,” he says.

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