Divers recall beating Cook Strait's currents

23:30, May 08 2012
The Marlborough Express 1997

Every year in April, Blenheim men Garry Ham and Kevin Sim get together to reminisce about the time they survived 27 hours in Cook Strait.

On April 21, 1997, Garry and Kevin made world headlines after a chartered diving trip went bad, leaving them stranded at Cape Jackson, near the western head of Queen Charlotte Sound.

Garry, who was 35 at the time, and Kevin, who was 40, were both experienced divers. They were among five sets of divers on the trip, which Garry had organised with the Blenheim Dive Club.

Garry and his diving buddy were the first to hop in, but separated under water.

"You're not meant to, but that happens quite a bit," Garry said.

Kevin, who had also become separated from his partner, mistook Garry for his diving buddy.


"Then I saw it was Garry, and thought `I might as well come up with you', and the rest of it is history," said Kevin.

They entered the water at 9.20am, and failed to resurface an hour later as expected.

The sun was lower in the sky because of the time of the year; something the men believe made them hard to spot. "The boat was sitting down from us, and if they were looking, they might not have seen us because of the sun," Garry said.

They started to drift about 11am, but were confident they would be found.

"We knew they were out looking for us, because we could see them," he said.

The skipper of the charter boat did not report them missing until 12.50pm.

"The last time we saw the boat was about 3.30 in the afternoon, coming towards us, and we thought they'd seen us because they seemed quite close. And then the boat stopped, and it just turned around and took off."

Garry said they could see planes and helicopters going over top, but they were searching in the wrong area.

Cape Jackson is notorious for tidal currents, which didn't help the search. "We were being ripped out by the current, probably a lot faster than the circles they were doing, so we were outside that radius," Garry said.

Both men had safety sausages – metre-long tubes used to mark a diver in trouble – which they inflated using their tanks.

Later they found out the search teams had been told the men hadn't resurfaced.

It was unusual for two separate divers who weren't diving buddies to go missing at the same time, so it was assumed they hadn't survived, Garry said.

Out in the strait, they grabbed onto a log to keep afloat. "It was only eight or 10 feet long, so it was more of a branch than a log," Kevin said.

Although they knew each other before the trip and had dived together in the past, the men weren't close friends at the time.

"Kevin was a bit of a talker once he got going," Garry said. "By the end of the night, I knew all his history."

They talked about work, their families and their children to keep each other awake. "I don't know how many nautical miles we were ripped out, but during the night at one stage we were closer to the North Island than we were to the South Island, for sure. We could see all the lights along Mana," Garry said.

Some time during the night, Kevin saw a fin in the water.

"My old heart came straight out my mouth," he said. It turned out to be a bottle-nosed dolphin.

"A big seal also popped out, had a look at us and swam away," Garry said.

After a very long night, in which they talked and swam laps to keep warm, the men were certain they would be found.

"The next morning was a beautiful day. We thought they'd be out looking for us, but they weren't," Garry said. "They were looking for bodies along the shoreline. They were miles away."

They decided to take matters into their own hands, and split up about 8am.

"I decided I'd try and have a go to swim and see how far we could get, because there was no sign of anyone out there looking for us," Garry said.

"We thought if we were gonna survive this, we're gonna have to go ourselves."

Fortunately for them, a retired couple had chosen that day to go fishing in the Sounds on their pleasure boat, Morning Star, and came across Garry swimming in the water. Ten minutes later they picked up Kevin.

The couple gave them water, coffee and some fruit cake, which stuck in their mouths.

After they were picked up by the police boat, they were transferred to the Coastguard boat, where they were briefed on what was going to happen.

"We didn't realise it was such a big deal," Garry said. "We were quite all right. We weren't dying and we hadn't been bitten by sharks. We'd just spent the night in there, kicking away."

They by-passed the TV crews and crowds waiting for them at the Picton marina, and travelled back to Blenheim; Kevin with his family and Garry in a police car.

When they got home, both men were "hounded" by the media, and advised to get some sleep, because the next day two chartered planes were taking them to Wellington, where they appeared on TV3 and the Holmes show.

"We were happy to do that, get it over and done with," Garry said.

Within two weeks they were both back in the water.

Kevin went diving with the same buddy from that day, who didn't let him out of his sight. His wife and kids went along to make sure he didn't disappear, he said.

Garry, however, separated from his buddy straight away on his first dive after the incident.

"That's just how we dive here," he said.

Both men still go diving regularly, and now they carry whistles.

In January this year, Kevin returned to the same spot in Cape Jackson, a place few people dive for fear of the strong current.

Their advice to divers is simple. "If you plan, you'll be OK."

The Marlborough Express