CoastguardMana Saving Lives at Sea

Rescue after cruel night at sea

18 Jun 2007
Posted by Mark Presling
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As Tulo Tuala clung to the side of an inflatable boat bailing in darkness, his thoughts turned to his brother who was lost at sea and never returned.


Believing he would suffer the same fate, he said, it was like seeing God when rescuers plucked him and his friend from their 2.5 metre boat about 9am yesterday.

They had spent a cruel night adrift off Wellington's Makara coast, with waves a metre high and a howling southerly chilling the temperature to minus three degrees celsius. In wetsuits but with no gloves or lifejackets, the pair wondered if it was "game over".

"We're lucky to be alive," Mr Tuala said from the Mana Coastguard base yesterday. "We thought we'd never see land again. We're happy we're here."

As rescue boats passed in the distance, Mr Tuala and his friend lit petrol-soaked towels to try to attract their attention, but to no avail.

His friend said it was the first time he had been frightened in his life. "We said to each other: `If that's the way it ends, that's the way it is."'

Mr Tuala, whose brother Malaki disappeared at sea in Fiji, said he thought of his brother and wished he had followed his family's advice.

"My family always told me don't go out to sea, otherwise you'll end up like your brother," he said.

The pair had gone fishing about midday on Saturday. When their engine failed as they checked nets in the evening, they were out of cellphone range and at the mercy of nature.

They started paddling with their hands, bailing the water as it surged over the sides, and waited. With no idea of the time or where they were, they drifted in the darkness, clinging to the sides of the boat and trying simply to keep their cellphone dry till they came back into range.

Rescuers were alerted about 3.30am. Mana Coastguard scoured the shore with searchlights, maritime police and a commercial boat searched the channel and the Westpac rescue helicopter used heat-seeking equipment.

Mr Tuala described his frustration at seeing searchers and trying desperately to attract their attention but watching them disappear into the darkness again. "It happened four or five times. Then everything got too wet. We didn't have a dry towel."

They were found about 25 kilometres off Mana Island at 9am, transferred on to the Mana Coastguard boat Pelorus and brought to shore cold and shocked but happy to be back on land.

Mana Coastguard president Chris Seaton said it was a wet, cold rescue in choppy seas. He said the men were very lucky.

MetService forecaster Gerard Barrow said winds were blowing about 35kmh at Mana Island overnight, gusting to 50kmh. The air temperature, allowing for wind chill, would have been zero.

Senior Constable Andrew Cox, of the maritime police, said the men were found with the help of Vodafone staff, who were able to determine the distance of their cellphone from the nearest tower, and its direction.

"But they could have been found a lot earlier if they had a radio and flares." Cellphones should not be relied on at sea, he said.


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