Rescue teams braving Cyclone Gabrielle’s treacherous wind and seas have had to push themselves to their limits to save a stricken boatie being tossed about on giant waves.
Teams spent a day and a half of trying to reach the 70-year-old after huge swells pushed his catamaran off its anchorage at Aotea Great Barrier Island early yesterday morning.
With the boat’s motor failing shortly after, the man rushed out a mayday call at 2.30am yesterday before drifting helplessly over bucking 6m-8m waves as far as near Whangārei and then back 100km out to sea.
Police Maritime Unit Senior Sergeant Garry Larsen said the storm was so “extreme” even the police rescue boat could not make headway and had to turn around.
“It was extremely dangerous,” he said.
“The man’s basically been dead in the water, he hasn’t had any ability to control the vessel. His sails were inoperable and he had no propulsion systems working.”
Rescue boats and helicopters tried multiple times to save him, but it was only once Navy frigate Te Mana sailed into the heart of Cyclone Gabrielle’s storm that the man was eventually picked up this morning.
Larsen praised rescuers, calling them “some of the best” in the business and said it was a timely reminder for boaties to stay off the water in the coming days.
“I’d recommend no one go out to sea in these sort of conditions,” he said.
“Even going forward once the cyclone goes away, there are incredible swells coming through to New Zealand from the east for a number of days to come - so will still be rough conditions for a long time.”
The 70-year-old man’s drama began at Great Barrier Island late on Sunday night and early Monday morning when the seas began to pick up and his anchor cable snapped, initially running him aground in Port Fitzroy.
However, the rising wind and seas then picked up his catamaran up and sent it drifting to sea.
Trying to fire his motor up, he realised he had mechanical problems and put out a mayday call north west of Great Barrier at 2.30am yesterday.
But with Cyclone Gabrielle building, rescuers were up against it, Larsen said.
“Trying to get assets out there in those sorts of conditions is very difficult.”
His team called the Northland and Auckland rescue helicopter crews, but neither was given a green light to fly.
The only help available was the Deodar III police launch that left Auckland’s marina at 3.20am.
It was hammered by 80-knot winds and 6m seas in “very trying conditions”, making it as far as Little Barrier Island.
“But because the conditions weren’t getting any better and probably were getting worse, unfortunately they had to turn around,” Larsen said.
With the police team heading back to base, the police Eagle and Auckland rescue helicopter sped out. The Eagle chopper found the vessel and directed the rescue crew.
But with the catamaran pitching violently, the crew was unable to winch onto its deck.
They too had to head home without picking up the man.
By the afternoon, rescuers prepared for another attempt even though Cyclone Gabrielle was now barrelling into the area.
Auckland’s rescue helicopter team couldn’t even make it to the search area and although Northland’s crew made it they couldn’t find the boat because it had drifted so fast in the rough waters.
With the weather worsening and evening approaching, the crews couldn’t make another attempt that night.
However, Larsen’s team put in a call for help from HMNZS Te Mana.
And as Cyclone Gabrielle sent Auckland and much of the North Island severe gales and rain, the Te Mana set sail into the storm’s heart, leaving Devonport at 7.30pm.
But despite looking all night, it was not able to find the missing vessel, Larsen said.
However, at 7.30am today, the sailor set off an emergency locator beacon.
Immediately, the Northland rescue helicopter crew took off and the Te Mana steamed to the location.
The Te Mana circled the man’s vessel several times, waiting for weather conditions to allow a small inflatable with four crew on board to launch.
Eventually, the man leaped off his catamaran in his life jacket, allowing navy divers to pluck him from the sea.
Larsen said the man appeared to be unhurt and in good spirits and was due in Auckland aboard the Te Mana around 8pm.
However, the man’s catamaran was damaged before rescuers arrived.
Larsen was not sure why the man waited until this morning to set off his Epirb.
“But we’re thankful it did occur because we would have struggled to have located him in the area we were searching,” he said.
The rescue was extraordinary, given it had taken place during the worst conditions thrown up by Cyclone Gabrielle, he said.
Larsen praised all the rescuers, including the helicopter crews, Coastguard and Navy as well as his police team.
“The skill of my staff at Maritime Police is invaluable in these type of operations, they are some of the best,” he said.
Navy Commodore Garin Golding said his team were also delighted to pull off the rescue.