New Zealand helicopter crewman Mark Cannell has put fingers to keyboard to tell the story, from the helicopter crews' viewpoint, of a rescue on 3rd March. He wrote it to raise money for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter service, and it provides a graphic insight into the lives of those that cruising sailors depend on in the hopefully unlikely event of needing to be rescued:
An example of the helicopter’s perspective, before the crewman is lowered
The forecast was not pretty and the reality was even worse as high winds and plenty of rain cut a trail of destruction around the country. I was just back from leave and expecting a pretty quiet day as a crewman on Westpac Rescue 1.
I was hoping to ease back into things nicely, catch up on emails and do a myriad things that seem to pile up when you are away. But a call came through at 8.24am that blew all of that out the window.
Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Wellington advised us that there was a 10-metre yacht with one person onboard in difficulty off the West Coast about 30km from shore. The knowing glances between me, paramedic Russell Clarke and pilots Steve Oliver and Bruce Joy said it all. A quick discussion followed about what we needed and the likely challenges we were to face. Our second crew jumped in to lend a hand, getting gear together and changing the helicopter configuration for winching offshore.
Then the hotline went – this time advising that another patient needed immediate evacuation from a remote part of Waiheke Island.
The helicopter was reverted to our standard configuration and we took another advanced paramedic so Russell would not have to get out of his wet winching equipment.
We dropped the patient off, headed back to Mechanics Bay for a 'rotors running' refuel and changed the helicopter back to an offshore configuration.
Then we went off into what could be termed as a stiff breeze – 70kmh to 90kmh – heading for a location some 30km out from Raglan.
We ran standard emergency briefs on our way to the yacht and the host of what-ifs that could crop up. We contacted the yacht's skipper who was remarkably calm and passed on vital information.
It is sometimes hard to gauge the size of the swell over rough sea until you have something to compare it with. But it was obvious we were dealing with particularly nasty conditions with winds gusting to almost 100kmh and 8 metre to 9 metre swells. The yacht was being tossed about violently.
Attempting a rescue from the vessel was going to be extremely dangerous if the 4.75mm rescue hoist cable came into contact.
We were told the yacht had a liferaft on board and formulated a plan to get the skipper to abandon his pride and joy and get into the raft so we could winch him to safety.
The yachtsman did as we asked. Watching him leave his vessel to board the raft in such big seas was heart-stopping stuff. There were times I thought the yacht was going to roll right on to him and it was with great relief that we saw him cut the tether attaching the raft.
The yacht drifted past quickly and it was now time to winch Russell close enough so he could use a rescue strop to get the yachtsman.
We set up in a position so that pilot Steve could maintain a visual reference and winched Russell halfway down.
Steve commenced a short run in and was guided by quick directions because he lost sight of the raft. He managed to get the helicopter to a position where we could quickly lower Russell into the water.
I then called for Steve to fly backwards and left, winching out at full speed so as not to snap-load Russell from the water.
Russell got to the raft within seconds and piled into the door, intent on getting our survivor into the rescue strop and to safety.
He recognised there was going to be a big problem trying to get winched safely from the relatively small doorway of the liferaft and decided to get out with our survivor into the heaving sea.
A quick thumbs up indicated he was ready for extraction. Our survivor certainly did not need an invite to climb inside once he was winched to safety.
These are the people who courageously put themselves into potentially dangerous situations to effect rescues - any time of the day or night. Money cannot repay the job they do, but donating to your local helicopter rescue service is a good way to begin!