Praise for ‘clockwork’ rescue

Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 52, August 2017

Whakatane tramper John Sherriff was just beginning his four-day tramp on the Hollyford Track, in Fiordland, when he slipped on a boulder and landed badly on his hip earlier this year.
Whakatane tramper John Sherriff.
Whakatane tramper John Sherriff on Cascade Saddle Route during another excursion, in the Southern Alps.
Maritime New Zealand © 2021

As the pain and shock set in, John realised he would need to activate his previously unused PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) – that he had carried with him for eight years. He describes the subsequent rescue – coordinated by RCCNZ (the Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand) – as working like “clockwork”.

John, 73, was in a party of four that was planning to go on to the more challenging Gillespie Pass after finishing the Hollyford Track. They were exploring around Martins Bay hut on the first evening, on the lookout for the nearby seal colony and elusive Fiordland penguins. To speed up travel John started hopping from boulder to boulder.

“Suddenly it went very wrong. My foot slipped and I fell very heavily on my left hip, directly on the top of a round boulder.

The pain was terrible. In great shock I was helped to my feet and it was a major mission to shuffle on one good leg to the hut about 50 metres away.” fact the Te Anau SAR helicopter had been diverted to another emergency call...

John decided not to alert search and rescue personnel at night, as the injury was not life threatening. Fortunately John had sent his FastFind beacon off for a battery change and testing within the previous two years – so he was confident it would work in the morning.

“My mate put the activated PLB out on the chopper pad in front of the hut with the short aerial sticking up. We assumed it was working as the strobe was flashing. We anticipated it would take two hours for the chopper to arrive. When it hadn’t come after two hours he went out and checked the PLB – the strobe was still flashing strongly.”

In fact the Te Anau SAR helicopter had been diverted to another emergency call, needing the type of hoist it had on-board. A second helicopter and crew were dispatched to John’s location, and arrived outside the hut three hours after the beacon was activated.

“The SAR medic on board was wonderful in getting the full story and checking my state.”

Te Anau search and rescue helicopter.
The Te Anau search and rescue helicopter was a welcome sight – flying in to Martins Bay, Fiordland.
Maritime New Zealand © 2021

Once in the air John was pleased to learn that the pilot had been under the helicopter to retrieve and deactivate the beacon, before take-off.

He says RCCNZ were in regular contact with his wife, Ngaire, the principal emergency contact listed on his beacon registration details. Initially she was able to confirm details about the number in the party and their route plan.

“So all-in-all it worked like clockwork. The PLB was deadly accurate and immediate, and the rescue services in Wellington and Te Anau did so well in keeping my wife informed,” says John, a former health and safety officer at a pulp and paper mill.

A doctor at Te Anau examined John and sent him to Invercargill Hospital for an X-ray. The top of the femur at the hip was fractured, but not right through, so fortunately John did not need to undergo surgery.

But the experience means he now urges everyone out in the bush to carry a PLB and make sure it is regularly checked, serviced and tested, and contact details updated.

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