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Dangerous rescue brings more awards for three

by Nancy Knudsen on 23 Sep 2012
Lowe Corporation Rescue helicopter had just 20 minutes of fuel left when it landed after the rescue .. .
As cruising sailors it is all too easy to take for granted that the rescue authorities will be there when we need them but the harrowing stories of dangerous rescues are just what we need to be humbled by their contribution. A civilian medal has been awarded to three men at the core of a daring and dangerous rescue in New Zealand.

The three, senior winchman Geoff Taylor, St John Ambulance advanced paramedic Stephen Smith and pilot Dean Herrick, who were awarded the Royal Humane Society's Silver Medal, had already been presented with the New Zealand Search and Rescue Council's top honour for bravery - the Gold Award. Read their story:


The call-out on October 11 was one Mr Smith said he would never forget, and the most challenging he had been involved in.

Wellington yachtie George Horgan, 63, called for help after the sails of his nine-metre yacht were blown out and the engine had failed - about 50 nautical miles out from the cape.

'The yacht was thrashing about in rough seas,' Mr Smith told local publication Hawke's Bay Today. He was winched down into 5m swells and 35-knot winds to rescue Mr Horgan, but the conditions and the sailor's reluctance to leave the yacht to get into a better position to be rescued, away from the swaying mast, made it treacherous.

The award citation stated:

Mr Smith had been lowered into the water and reached the boat, but getting the yachtsman into the desired position away from his boat proved to be extremely difficult. He was finally able to get the yachtsman into the harness.

Complications which followed resulted in the winch line with Mr Smith and the yachtsman attached to it becoming entangled with a rope linking a life raft to the boat. It took great skill on the part of all three crew members to free the winch line.

Mr Smith, in the water, was being repeatedly battered by the sea and against the yacht. Meanwhile, to compound their problems, the yachtsman endeavoured to climb back onto the boat, became entangled, and fell out of the harness into the water. He could not be seen. The crew believed he had been lost.

Physically spent and gasping for breath Mr Smith was winched back to the helicopter.

The yachtsman resurfaced some distance away and was seen by the pilot, Dean Herrick.

Despite his condition Mr Smith went back into the water again. After being frequently submerged he managed to reach the yachtsman and place him in the strop, bear-hugging him to prevent him slipping out again. They were then winched back to the helicopter. The man was unconscious, and a dead weight, requiring Mr Smith and Mr Taylor to use all their strength to get him on board.

Once inside, Stephen Smith was completely exhausted, he could barely speak and was vomiting sea water.

He required hospital treatment for secondary drowning. He had sustained a black eye and bruising to his neck, arms and shoulders.

By the time the helicopter had landed safely at the Hawke's Bay Hospital, with only approximately 20 minutes of reserve fuel remaining, the operation had taken approximately two hours, including the one-hour winch rescue on location.

All three involved took the same stance as winchman Mr Taylor, who recognised the situation they were placing themselves in. 'It's just part of the job,' he said.

Mr Smith said while he had not had contact with Mr Horgan he had met family members who had told him how 'deeply grateful' they were for what he, Mr Taylor and Mr Herrick had done.

My take on this account, apart from being impressed and grateful for the heroic actions of the three men, is that if you ever have to be winched to a helicopter, prepare yourself to jump away from the yacht so as not to further endanger yourself and your rescuers.

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