The Kirribilli Incident

St John Intensive Care Paradeic being winched down. Photo: St John.

“A yacht lies stricken on rocks near Whangarei …”

March 18, 2018.

It was around 5 pm, and I had just poured an Appletons and ginger beer for my wife and my daughter, and a Captain Morgan and Coke for myself. We were tucked into a corner of Paradise Bay on Urupukapuka, in the Bay of Islands, having been forewarned of foul weather in the area the Metservice calls ‘Brett’.

“Listen to this,” said my daughter, looking at her phone. “A Coastguard boat is on its way to help two men in trouble on a yacht off the Northland coast, in waves nearly six metres high. A 12m Beneteau yacht made a distress call last night reporting it was unable to reach the safety of Whangarei Harbour with large seas knocking their boat down and problems with their electronic navigation system. The men spent the night battling gale-force winds and huge waves…” (It turned out to be a man and his wife.)

I beeped the channel button on the vhf until 16 showed.

“Kirribilli, Kirribilli, Kirribilli. This is Maritime Radio Whangarei Romeo One. Do you copy? Over.” …

(We could only hear one side of the transmission.)

 “Copy that Kirribilli. What is your correct position? Over.” …

“Roger Kirribilli. To confirm: you are at the Poor Knights. What is the weather condition at your current position? Over.”

“Roger Kirribilli. To confirm: you have fifteen, one five knots wind, and zero point two five metres swell. How much diesel do you have on board? Over.” …

“Copy that Kirribilli. I understand you have about one-tenth of a tank of diesel. How much is that in litres? Over.” …

“Roger Kirribilli. To confirm: your diesel tank is about one-tenth full and you are unable to assess the amount in litres. Are you in a position to drop an anchor considering the current conditions? Over.”

“Copy that Kirribilli. Please confirm you are unable to drop your anchor without your engine going. There should be some mechanism on the winch that allows you to release your anchor chain without the engine running. Over.” …

“Roger Kirribilli. I am unable to advise you on that as you are the master of your own vessel. Please standby. Over.”

 “Kirribilli, Kirribilli, Kirribilli. This is Maritime Radio Whangarei Romeo One. Do you copy? Over.” …

“Copy that Kirribilli. The police advise you to find a way to anchor your vessel, even if you have to cut the chain later if it can’t be lifted. Over.”

 “Roger Kirribilli. To confirm: you intend to make your way to Whangarei Heads. Maritime Radio Whangarei standing by.”

“Kirribilli, Kirribilli, Kirribilli. This is Maritime Radio Whangarei Romeo One. Do you copy? Over.” …

“Copy that Kirribilli. The Rescue Coordination Centre is downgrading your situation from Distress. Please switch to channel 67 for further communication. We shall maintain a one hourly communication schedule. Maritime Radio Whangarei out.”

Northern Advocate, Tuesday, March 20:

“A yacht lies stricken on rocks near Whangarei at Taiharuru Heads after a couple were winched to safety around 5:30 am yesterday ….”

At the time the distress call was logged at 6 pm on Saturday, March 17, the yacht was 10 – 15 nautical miles off Whangarei Heads and they were low on diesel and fresh water. Weather conditions reported gusts over 40 knots and swell just under 6 metres.

Around 7:30 pm that evening, Tutukaka Coastguard dispatched their rescue vessel. The conditions were so rough, Tutukaka Rescue could only assist by giving the distressed yacht a compass bearing for Bream Head. Whangarei Coastguard then dispatched Circa Rescue from Marsden Cove, but within thirty minutes, they too found a rescue attempt impossible. The struggling couple were then advised to stay out to sea as far as possible, deploy a sea anchor, turn off the engine to conserve fuel, and wait for daylight.

Conditions worsened even further, and communication was hampered by no response from the yacht until around 1 am. The couple felt they were dangerously close to shore and had inflated their lifejackets. They gave their location as half a nautical mile off the northern end of Ocean Beach. Coastguard requested EPIRB activation for a more accurate position, and a signal was received by the Rescue Coordination Centre, but without location advice. The situation showed a need for an immediate rescue, and a chopper set off from Whangarei at 2 am. Lack of visibility and the atrocious conditions rendered a rescue unachievable.

Only boaties who have survived conditions like this can imagine how the couple spent the first night of their ordeal.

At first light, the Whangarei Rescue Vessel set off again from Marsden Cove with diesel and fresh water. The swell had dropped to 4 metres, but the wind was still blowing 40 knots. Again, the rescue attempt was aborted.

(A Google search identifies Tutukaka Rescue as a purpose built 9.5 metre AMF Quick Response Vessel, powered by twin Yamaha 250 hp outboard engines; and Circa Rescue as a 10.2 metre Naiad Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat, also powered by twin Yamaha 250 hp outboard engines. Impressive.)

Around midday Sunday, a second chopper went out and lowered a paramedic into the 4 metre swell, who swam to the yacht and climbed aboard. The situation was assessed and deemed safer for the couple to stay onboard and seek shelter at the Poor Knights. The paramedic was winched back on to the chopper and Coastguard Radio guided the couple to the calmer conditions at the Poor Knights.  Northland Police Search and Rescue repeatedly advised them to remain there until the  weather improved.

Coastguard Operations said that in situations like this, the safety of the rescuers involved is carefully assessed.

The couple, a man aged 77, and his wife, 70, from Auckland, were sailing between the Bay of Islands and Whangarei when they made the distress call at 6 pm on Saturday. Early Monday morning the Kirribilli struck rocks off Taiharuru. It was still dark when the Northern Rescue Helicopter lowered a medic on to Ipurau, a rocky island at the entrance to Taiharuru Estuary, on to which the couple had climbed after their yacht began sinking. Both were winched off and treated at Whangarei Hospital, with the man being admitted to a ward and his wife discharged.

Back on board our boat in Paradise Bay, I mentioned to the captain [my wife that is, not Morgan], how pleased I was we had remained in the Bay of Islands until the weather improved.

(Acknowledgements: New Zealand Herald, Northern Advocate,  Coastguard Northern Region.)


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