Each day this week the Herald is profiling people who, through brave acts or extraordinary efforts, have saved a stranger from death or danger. These are people who have put their lives on the line for another or risked their safety to help someone else. Today’s lifesaver is Russell Clark from Auckland.

As a paramedic for the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter, Russell "Rusty" Clark is no stranger to saving lives.

But during one rescue in May he literally put his own life on the line to help two boaties off their stricken yacht.

On May 17 the crew were deployed to the yacht 75 nautical miles off the coast of Tauranga. The vessel was quickly taking on water, the sails were torn and there was a risk the boaties would end up in the water.

Mr Clark said the first rescue plan was for a nearby boat to pull up next to the yacht and help the men.


However, when the chopper got out to sea, the crew realised the other boat was too far off and by the time it got close enough, the men would likely be in the water.

The only option was to winch the men to safety, and time was running out.

"What was going through my mind was that we were a long way off shore, we had limited fuel to carry out the mission ... there was a chance the helicopter would have to leave, leave me on the boat or in the water and head back," Mr Clark said.

The yacht, stricken off the coast of Tauranga, had torn sails and was taking on water fast. Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust
The yacht, stricken off the coast of Tauranga, had torn sails and was taking on water fast. Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

A rope was thrown down to the boaties to enable Mr Clark to winch himself down at a 45-degree angle rather than straight down, where the sails would be an issue.

"As I was going down what was going through my mind was that we had a tight timeframe to carry out the mission," he said.

"The men on the boat were very fatigued, mentally they were quite exhausted, it was a huge ordeal for them and it was difficult for them to hold the rope and lower me on to the boat.

"I ended up being hit against the side of the vessel a couple of times. Eventually I managed to clamber my way on to the boat. As I was being winched down on to the boat it got a bit hairy for a while."

Mr Clark was then able to attach the men to the winch and they were lifted to safety.

"They were really exhausted, they had had enough, they just wanted to be out of there," he said.

"They were so relieved once they were on board, you could see it in their faces, it was like 'thank God this is over'."

Without Mr Clark and his team's efforts the men could have perished at sea.

As the rescue unfolded the pilots had to fly the chopper using their instruments only so they could fly through cloud.

Performing a winch rescue while flying that way is risky and especially challenging for the pilot and crew.

"When people ask me about this mission, the point I want to make is that as an individual, I am a highly trained paramedic, I've got water training. But without the crew with me I wouldn't have the confidence to go and do that," said Mr Clark.

"The pilots and crew enable me to do my job. It's a team effort."

On board with Mr Clark were pilots Rob Anderson and Steve Oliver and crewman Karl Taylor.

Mr Clark shrugged off talk of heroism and bravery.

"It is a part of my job, but in retrospect there was risk associated with it. It was a calculated risk but you can never mitigate it completely."

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