RCCNZ marks 10-year anniversary – a decade of saving lives

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 46, August 2014

It’s an anniversary that deserves to be celebrated by at least 20,000 people – all those on the receiving end of efforts by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) during its 10 years of operation.
RCCNZ officers
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Search and rescue officers coordinating an operation at RCCNZ headquarters.

RCCNZ has dealt with 10,000 incidents over the past decade, and Operations Manager John Seward says the safety of more than 20,000 people involved with those incidents was at risk. About 3,500 people are estimated to have been plucked from life-or-death situations.*

* This covers people whose lives were saved, rescued or assisted.

The centre was established as part of MNZ in 2004. Ten of the original 14 staff are still with the now 22-strong team.

“That is a remarkably stable workforce,” says John, “and it reflects the passion and commitment of those doing the job.”

RCCNZ operates around the clock, with search and rescue officers (SAROs) currently managing up to 800 incidents and coordinating 300 air, land and sea operations each year.

New Zealand’s search and rescue (SAR) region extends 30 million square kilometres, from about 500km south of the equator down to the South Pole, and from halfway between New Zealand and Australia to about halfway between New Zealand and South America. Operations can range from searches for Kiribati fishermen to responses to beacon alerts in Antarctica to provision of medical services and medical evacuations.

Amaltal Columbia
RCCNZ directed the fishing vessel Ivan Golubets to the Amaltal Columbia off the Canterbury coast.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

There are big success stories as well as, inevitably, equally high-profile tragedies and some frustrations.

Within one week in July, RCCNZ made headlines coordinating a rescue of three people from their sinking yacht Django north of North Cape – picked up by the Royal New Zealand Navy patrol vessel HMNZS Otago – and the rescue of solo trans-Tasman kayaker Scott Donaldson, who was winched to safety 83km off the Taranaki coast.

Those rescues were all over in a matter of hours, but RCCNZ operations are not always so straightforward. In 2012, a couple aboard the yacht Windigo spent a fearful night after their vessel rolled in battering seas between New Zealand and Tonga. RCCNZ arranged for an RNZAF P3 Orion to fly to the scene, 1,260km north-east of New Zealand.

The Orion located the vessel at about 1am and was able to establish radio contact, but a rescue was still hours away. RCCNZ then directed the container ship Chengtu, en route to Los Angeles, to the yacht. It arrived in daylight after a voyage of 15 hours and, thanks to some superb seamanship, was able to pick up the couple from their disabled yacht.

Not all searches end well. An intensive three-week search last year for the American classic yacht Nina, which vanished after departing New Zealand for Australia, failed to find any trace of the vessel or its seven crew members.

“It is always enormously disappointing and sad when we are unable to successfully conclude a search with a rescue,” John says. “That is something all staff feel deeply.”

The yacht Tafadzwa, sails shredded, was spotted near the Chatham Islands after going missing on a voyage between Tauranga and Gisborne.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

Some other SAR operations have had unexpected outcomes. In 2010, South African man Paul van Rensburg was reported overdue while sailing between Tauranga and Gisborne on his 11m yacht Tafadzwa with his dog, Juanita. Intensive searching continued for a number of days, without success. Ten days after the search was suspended, an RNZAF P3 Orion sighted the yacht about 60 nautical miles (110km) west of the Chatham Islands. RCCNZ diverted the nearest fishing vessel to the yacht, but only the dog was found on board, still alive.

Occasionally there is a miracle. One of these was the rescue in 2010 of three Tokelauan boys, who were presumed drowned after going missing from Atafu Atoll. An extensive aerial and on-water search, assisted by RCCNZ, had been called off when, out of the blue, a Sanford fishing vessel found them alive 700 nautical miles from home, 50 days after setting out in a small runabout.

There are also many rewarding experiences, such as a visit to RCCNZ by Auckland skipper Dr Charles Bradfield, who wanted to show his gratitude to the team who coordinated the rescue of his family, including six children, after their yacht lost its mast in a storm north of North Cape in 2009.

RCCNZ also responds to many beacon alerts on land each year. Tracking down an activated beacon’s location may be only the first step in a rescue that then involves helicopter crews finding people who are almost invisible in mountainous or bushy terrain.

Setting off a beacon is only the start of a successful rescue operation. Searchers still have to spot the person in distress; in New Zealand terrain that is not always easy.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020

One of the most extensive air searches over land was for the helicopter ZKHTF, carrying multi-millionaire businessman Michael Erceg, which went missing on a flight from Auckland to Queenstown in 2005. About 20 helicopters were involved at the height of the five-and-a-half-day search, which covered about 20,000 kilometres before being suspended. The wreckage was found two weeks later when a helicopter pilot followed up a hunch, with the help of RCCNZ, and carried out a further search.

Also land-based but a long way from home was the search for a Canadian aircraft after a beacon alert in Antarctica last year. Bad weather and local conditions made for a challenging operation, which attracted considerable international attention. Sadly, four days after the plane went missing, its wreckage was found with no survivors.

All up, about 6,000 of the incidents handled by RCCNZ have involved responding to beacon alerts. John says changes in technology and practices over the past 10 years have led to a big decline in the number of false alerts.

“Another major improvement has been a huge increase in the number of 406MHz distress beacons registered with RCCNZ – 46,000 today, compared with just 2,000 a decade ago,” John says.

“The 406MHz frequency has less interference, and the latest beacon models transmit location information more accurately, which means earlier and better situational awareness and vastly increases the chances of a successful rescue.”

RCCNZ works closely with the other national coordinating authority, the New Zealand Police, as well as with defence forces, aviation, marine and land search and rescue services (such as rescue helicopter teams and mountaineering volunteers). It also works with the Airways Corporation New Zealand, which provides air traffic services, and the Maritime Operations Centre, which monitors marine radio traffic.

While modern beacons and distress calls via Marine Radio help to pinpoint the location of those needing help, RCCNZ says people still need to make sure information is available to help SAROs plan a successful rescue strategy.

“Carrying safety equipment such as a registered beacon, VHF radio, flares and a satellite phone is vitally important,” says John. “But yachties, trampers and others planning trips can also greatly assist us by telling their registered ‘contact’ person, family members or flatmates where they are going, what their plans are and how many are in their party.”

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