Wayne Thompson is a NZ Herald reporter.

Miracle phone text in seas of hell

Glad to be back on dry land - (from left) Bill Clague, skipper Pete Deakin and Richard Hope, after their ordeal. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Glad to be back on dry land - (from left) Bill Clague, skipper Pete Deakin and Richard Hope, after their ordeal. Photo / Brett Phibbs

As he and two friends struggled to sail their disabled vessel away from the boiling surf off the treacherous west coast of Northland, yacht skipper Pete Deakin never felt so near to becoming shipwrecked.

Sails ripped to shreds by gale-force winds, their engine seized, the trio had brought the 12-metre ketch Cheval de Mer in close to the notorious Kaipara Harbour bar in a desperate attempt to get cellphone coverage to alert family of their plight.

"I had serious doubts we were going to be here," the Turangi man told the Herald after a rescue tow into the harbour yesterday ended a horror eight-day voyage from Nelson.

"I have never struck that before. I realised we were in trouble and needed to let people know what was happening. That was our only hope ... to let people know."

But as the yacht rocked and rolled in angry 4m to 6m high seas, and Mr Deakin set off the yacht's emergency locator beacon, came, what seemed to the crew, a miracle.

The cellphone of crew member Richard Hope suddenly came to life after days of silence in a reception deadspot.

It was a text from the 34-year-old's partner, Lydia Deakin, at their home in Wellington.

"How are you?" texted Lydia Deakin, who is also Peter's daughter.

Mr Hope: "Not well. No sails. No engine. No electrics and seas rising."

Miss Deakin: "Are you serious?"

Mr Hope: "Yes. Please dial 111."

She did and that night a Northland Emergency Services Trust helicopter was sent out from Whangarei.

The third crew member, Bill Clague, of Turangi, said they were able to relay a message that they needed rescuing.

"We said we wanted a tow into port and they said, 'Sorry boys, there is not going to be one tonight' and then he gave us a weather forecast for 40-knot winds ... 'so just hang on'.

"So we did. We set some sail and kept two-hour watches and just kept moving out to sea. Next day, no ship arrived to tow us but the helicopter came back and dropped us a small hand-held radio, sweets, buns and a Sunday paper.

"The pilot told us he was sorry that no one could get out to tow us and could we hang on a little longer.

"We said 'yep, but we would like a tow'."

Mr Clague, a yachtie for 30 years, hurt his back when the yacht bucked in the high seas and he was thrown from one end of the cockpit to the other.

Mr Deakin, with 43 years at sea, said the wind blew so strongly it sent the heavy wooden ketch at up to 14km/h with only the emergency jury rig set for steering away from the coast.

On Monday, the Maritime NZ rescue co-ordination centre asked the Silver Fern Shipping coastal tanker the Kakariki to stop by the yacht.

"They tried to take us in tow but the seas were too big and they had to leave us - another night of hoping for the best," said Mr Clague.

Keeping the crew's spirits up was the prospect of a tow arranged for the next day with Shamrock Charters, based at the Kaipara port of Helensville.

Through Monday night, the yacht slowly went backwards and forwards outside the harbour entrance, coming to within 7km of the shore.

Then at 9am yesterday, Rod Bridge and his powerful fishing boat Francie took the yacht in tow, braving what he called a "a good sea" crossing the bar.

Before the trouble began, the Cheval de Mer was being brought up the west coast of the North Island around North Cape to a berth at the eastern Bay of Plenty port of Ohope.

The trip started from Nelson with the "best five-day weather forecast I'd seen for a long time", said Mr Deakin.

However, after the first day at sea, the vessel called in to New Plymouth to drop off a badly sea-sick crew member and the next night, 75km off the Kaipara Coast "around midnight there was a bang and the engine stopped".

Mr Deakin said the Cheval de Mer, which he had owned for six years, had proved to be "absolutely amazing" in the Tasman Sea storm.

The owner of Creel Lodge in Turangi and a prominent trout fisherman, Mr Deakin said the voyage to the Bay of Plenty would resume when a new engine and new wardrobe of sails arrived.

- NZ Herald

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