Life in a Blue Suit

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The Queens Birthday Storm 1994 - SILVER SHADOW

The boat was eventually recovered inboard and we met the people. 'Low budget cruisers' who were not actually part of the regatta but who were on their way to Tonga, Greg Forbes and Barbara Parkes had been sailing for around 7 years in their small vessel. Greg's surname caused some comment but he was, of course, no relation to our other yachtsmen! Apart from being somewhat weary and a little cold they were fine and very quickly became a vital part of our crew, throwing themselves into the ship's life and work.

The operation continued and we struck off towards the south west and the 'Silver Shadow'. We were told that this New Zealand yacht had been rolled and the skipper had suffered a broken shoulder. The Orion crew told us that they had been speaking to the yacht and gave us a good position. The weather was again variable as we made our way across the ocean. We had recovered the 'Pilot' crew a little before 0900 on Monday 6 June (the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day someone recalled) and as the day drew on the weather changed. The wind increased somewhat but fortunately not to the same degree as during the 'Ramtha' operation.

We continued to receive reports about the 'Mary T', and were somewhat reassured (as we were now heading away from them!) to hear that their crew were coping .

The injury to the yacht's skipper and the worsening weather caused us come concern as we discussed methods by which we might effect the next rescue - if, indeed, they required a rescue. We were told that the yacht was able to motor under emergency steering though she only had fuel to get (as the airforce put it) 'halfway to anywhere'. We had some empty 44 gallon drums which could take diesel but there were only a couple of jerry cans onboard and these contained petrol for the outboard. We felt we could empty two out into a drum but we felt that these would not get the yacht very far. We couldn't see how we could pass them to the yacht as the ship continued to roll some 20 degrees either way in the large swell and decided that we could throw them overboard for the yacht to pick up but we knew it would be difficult for them. Likewise, as it would be necessary to lift the injured man off using the crane or a davit, we didn't consider it wise to bring the yacht alongside. Conditions were still too severe for a helicopter launch.

Clearly the recently invented 'Ramtha Rescue Method' would be unsuitable for an injured man. Though the weather was worse than in the morning, a boat launch was the only possibility.

It took us all day to make our way towards the yacht. Soon after lunch when it became apparent that we would not reach them before sunset they suggested (through the airforce aircraft) that they could motor towards us. We gave them a course to steer to intercept our course as the sea conditions prevented us steering directly towards them. The boats crew were warned out and relieved of other duties for the day. The medical assistant, LMA Michael Wiig, was also put on standby and the helicopter's lightweight stretcher (the only piece of the helicopter used in the actual rescues!) got ready.

WE finally came within VHF range of the Silver Shadow a little after 1600 and discussed their situation. I indicated that we would endeavour to give them whatever assistance they required and offered to take the skipper off and pass them some fuel as best we could, or take the entire crew off. I told them what I could not do was to tow the yacht ,since we were still required for the rescue operation and I could not expect success anyway, and I could not transfer any of my crew to them. They agreed to discuss it as we motored the last few miles towards each other. Within 20 minutes they came back and said that they had discussed it. If one went, they all went and they asked if we would take them off. I understand that a significant consideration was that they had lost their liferaft and only had a small VHF radio and emergency steering. It seemed like a sensible decision to me!

MONOWAI bucked and heaved as we came up to the yacht and launched the boat. The sea was very confused but the launch went surprisingly well. Though difficult to see, and often lost through in the troughs, we watched the RHIB approach the yacht. They bucked about considerably and it wasn't possible for the RHIB to lay alongside the yacht. Instead we saw it nose up to the yacht's stern and I believe I saw LMA Wiig leap across. He apparently gave the skipper a morphine jab and lashed him in the stretcher. We did see the stretcher literally thrown from the yacht into the rescue boat, Peter O'Neil firmly strapped into it. Then we lost them from sight for several minutes as the rest of the crew transferred.

The RHIB made its way back to us, and came alongside the port side just forward of the bridge where the torpedo davit used to rescue the Forbes was again utilised. Though I gave the boat a good lee, the sea was still sloppy. I could see the stretcher in the bottom of the RHIB with Wiig concernedly ensuring that the skipper's face was clear of the water. It was taking a lot of spray.

My heart was in my mouth as I watched the operation from the bridge, issuing the occasional engine or helm order. The boat and deck crew were magnificent and the stretcher came up, onboard and passed into the care of the ship's doctor in a remarkably quick and smooth operation. The same was not quite true for the rest of the operation.

As the boat lay alongside and the others prepared to disembark, a considerable amount of water slopped into the boat and there was about a foot of water at one stage. The other three yachtsmen were taken out by sling, two coming out together in a most friendly fashion - the photograph has caused them to be the subject of much ribald comment since!

As they did, the RHIB engine started spewing out volumes of thick black smoke and the coxswain reported that his alarms were sounding. I passed the order to keep the engine going and I would accept any damage. From the bridge we looked directly down into the boat. As the final yachtsman was lifted out, the order to 'get the crew out of the boat and abandon it formed on my lips. I was very conscious that if the engine failed I would have a dreadful time trying to recover the boat and could well lose the crew. A quarter million dollars' worth of boat didn't seem very expensive compared to my people's lives.

Something said by Hugh Aitken, my Executive Officer and a key person in all the boatwork and deckwork going on, caused me to withhold the order. The crew were told not to delay but to get round under the davits as quickly as they could and to stay as close to the ship as possible whilst doing so.

As I worked the ship around to provide a lee, they motored round, leaving a plume of black smoke.

Again, the boatdeck crew were splendid and the fall went down soon after the boat came alongside. Unfortunately the block had been somewhat strained during the other recovery and the thin plate which prevented the fall from slipping off the sheave had been bent. As the crew tried to hook on, the block flipped and jammed. It was too dangerous for them to sort it out in the boat as the falls described an arc of many metres through the air and jerked taught. They would, at best, have lost fingers. So the fall was recovered into the ship.

The very worst place for a boat to be is alongside a ship at sea and it was always my aim in such situations to have the boat wait off until all was ready and to keep it alongside for as short a time as possible. However, in the situation we kept the boat there. It bucked and filled with water, and jerked the lines and contacted the ship's side. I felt every jolt as I am sure did the crew.

The block was sorted out temporarily and lowered down with Petty Officer Donsellar holding the standing part of the fall to stop it swinging. This was very effective and Hemapo hooked on in very short order. The boat jerked out of the water. Though it contacted the ship several times it was soon at the boat deck. Wiig leapt out just as the ship started to roll so that the boat moved away, but the seamen timed their exit beautifully and stepped daintily onto the deck. We recovered the boat just before 1800, and sent a signal indicating that the boat was now an 'operational deficiency' (OPDEF).

That the ship's doctor, Lt Cdr John Talbot RNZNVR, was an orthopedic specialist was a great boon to Peter O'Neil , the skipper of 'Silver Shadow' and he was soon up and about with his arm firmly in a sling. The others soon could be found on the bridge and in all parts o the ship 'mucking in' as best they were able. The senior ratings mess took the team to their heart as only senior ratings could and I expect there were a number of evening sessions!

'Mary T' cancelled her Pan message that evening, but the search for the crew of the Quartermaster went on. We were able to launch the helicopter on Wednesday and located a considerable amount of floating debris though this proved to have come from the 'Heartlight'. The formal identification was made from the label of a small pill bottle that we found floating in the middle of the Pacific!

We were released from the operation at 1700 on Thursday June 9 and set course for Tonga . I had the option of returning to Auckland but since the yachties were going that way anyway and the thought of returning for a couple of days and then heading off was not an attractive one! Anyway, we had a survey to do.

We reached Tonga at the weekend and got a tremendous reception from the other members of the Regatta. The NZ and Australian High Commissions and the US Consul were very efficient in looking after their respective nationals. I needed a rest and am not a great party person in any case, but the crew were regally entertained and I felt they deserved their pace in the limelight. Of course, we had a number of repairs to effect. A new collar was sent from Auckland for the RHIB along with a variety of spare parts and the phone calls from the press continued. We managed to get our video back to NZ care of a friendly Air New Zealand steward.

Greg and Barbara had very few resources and had lost everything. I turned my Nelsonian eye to the fact that they lived onbaord in Nuku'alofa but did insist that they should disembark as we sailed! Greg particularly would have happily stayed!

Frankly, I was surprised at how much it took out of me and I still get very moved when I see the rescue videos. I talk about it all, though, at the drop of a hat! I learned a lot about the ship that I had not picked up in the previous 17 years and became a real 'safety' martinet when it came to lowering boats and in the wearing of lifejackets. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing!

I was conscious all the time of having to lead and make the decisions though very conscious too of the considerable part that all 136 people on board (including 2 surveyors from DOSLI and the airforce flight crew with the helicopter) played in the operation. I am very proud of my ship and the Ship's Company who achieved so much.

We were a little deflated by the lack of success in finding any sign from Quartermaster but pleased to have been able to rescue 8 people who all became good friends.

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