Long wait worth it for Windigo pair

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 42, December 2012

After 17 hours of battling huge 10–12 metre seas, and 40–55 knot winds (more than 75 km/h), the crew of Windigo finally activated their distress beacon.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Windigo after a battering 680 nautical miles north-east of New Zealand.

British man Stephen Jones, the yacht’s owner, and New Zealander Tania Davies were both knocked unconscious when the yacht rolled in high seas.

They had lost their steering, wind generator and dodger overboard, and a side hatch was smashed. This caused the head (bathroom) to fill with waves of sea water and punched a hole in the fresh water tanks, allowing 600 litres of fresh water to also flood into the vessel.

Windigo had left Tonga three days before and was heading for New Zealand. The French designed Benateau 393 (39 foot) 11.95 metre yacht (built in 2006) was 380 nautical miles (700 kilometres) south-west of Tonga and 680 nautical miles (1,260 kilometres) north-east of New Zealand.

When they activated their distress beacon at 5.30pm on 7 November, help was a long way off.

Upon receiving the beacon alert, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) swiftly arranged for an RNZAF P3 Orion to take off from Whenuapai, but there were few ships in the area that could be diverted to help. The container ship Chengtu, en route to Los Angeles, was directed to the yacht, but was 15 hours away.

Another yacht, Adventure Bound, headed towards Windigo, as did the New Zealand Navy offshore patrol vessel HMNZS Otago. However, Otago was in the Hauraki Gulf, approximately 35 hours away from the scene.

Having activated the beacon, there was little for the pair aboard to do but wait.

The sound of an Orion circling above at 1am provided the ultimate lift in spirits. And it arrived early. Despite not knowing what help was on the way, Ms Davies said the wait was actually shorter than expected.

“We had estimated that it would take 12 hours for anyone to reach us – we thought it would be 6am, but the Orion arrived around 1am,” she said. “We got the first radio call from them about half an hour before they were overhead – that was fantastic.”

In the early stages of the incident, satellite sweeps could only confirm that the distress beacon was still active. Before personnel on the Orion made radio contact with the pair, RCCNZ Search and Rescue Officers knew nothing about the condition of the yacht or its crew, so were relieved to establish that the pair were alive and coping.

Ms Davies said it was difficult for anyone who hadn’t been through a similar experience to understand what it was like.

“People have used words like ‘scared’ and ‘petrified’ – but the reality is that in a situation like that you are past that point, past petrified – you are completely focused on doing what you can to be safe. You don’t really have any emotion.”

The arrival of the Orion for the first time was only the start of the rescue. The aircraft had to leave to investigate a second beacon alert, before returning to New Zealand to refuel and then make the second of what would eventually be three flights to the scene.

While the Orion was away from the scene, a French Navy aircraft from Noumea was able to take up position over Windigo.

The yacht Adventure Bound arrived on the scene late that day but it was the cargo ship Chengtu (which arrived at the yacht’s position at around 3.40am the following morning) that provided the best option for rescue. Continuing rough seas, however, made this impossible during darkness.

Early the next day, there were concerns that conditions would remain too dangerous to allow a rescue, given the risks involved in getting from a yacht to a much larger vessel.

But outstanding seamanship by the captain of the Chengtu, Norman McKee, had the ship alongside Windigo and the two crew members hoisted aboard by sheer manpower by 9am.

The ship then turned south, eventually rendezvousing later that day with Otago, which brought the pair to New Zealand.

“We can’t speak highly enough of everyone involved in the rescue,” Ms Davies said. “We’d obviously like to thank RCCNZ for the life-saving job they did, and of course the crew of the Orion who made a real difference. They gave us the strength mentally to push on and cope as we waited for help to arrive. The Chengtu crew were amazing as were the crew of Otago. It is very hard to put into words how we feel.”

RCCNZ Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator Keith Allen said the rescue had truly been a combined effort.

“It is the result of an excellent coordinated effort involving the RNZAF, and the French Air Force, who provided a link for the two people on Windigo when there was no other means of contact. I would also like to express my appreciation to the captain of Chengtu and the crew of Adventure Bound for their efforts, and of course the New Zealand Navy. It was a tremendous result given the circumstances,” he said.

“The rescue effort and end result also show the effectiveness of the distress beacon system as a means of calling for help.”

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