Yachties rescued in wild seas off NZ

04:26, Jul 09 2014
Navy rescue
The view of the yacht Django11 from Otago's bridge wing as the ship considers the best way to effect a rescue in 4-metre swells.
Navy rescue
Passing a rope to the stricken yacht.
Navy rescue
The rope is hauled in by the yacht's crew.
Navy rescue
Lt Simon Wasley, left, of HMNZS Otago rescued Django11 sailors Andrew Cooke, Rebekka Hielkema and Ben Costello.

A navy swimmer who plunged into a stormy Pacific ocean says rescuing three people from a liferaft was challenging but he knew he was the best man for the job.

And when Rebekka Hielkema saw him pop up beside the liferaft she was in, she was impressed.

"The best-looking man I've seen for a while, that's for sure," she said today of mid-storm meeting with Lieutenant Simon Wasley of Wellington.

"It was amazing to see this great boat coming through the waves and just fantastic to see a face very capable of saving us, that's for sure. And confident, very confident."

Hielkema, Ben Costello and Andrew Cooke, all of Auckland, had earlier yesterday issued a distress call when a rogue wave wrecked the rudder of their yacht Django11 300 kilometres north of North Cape on their way from Fiji to Auckland.

Costello, back in Auckland this morning, was almost overcome with what they had experienced.

"For Simon to jump into the water - he put himself at great risk," Costello said.

"It's very emotional for someone to risk their life to save us. We were absolutely over the moon to have them there."

Wasley, the operations officer aboard the navy patrol boat HMNZS Otago, had gone into the sea when his boss, Lieutenant Commander Tim Garvan decided it was too risky to bring the liferaft into Otago's side.

Wasley said that when they agreed a swimmer was going in, he decided it had to be him.

"I much preferred to put myself in that situation than guys with less experience," he said.

"I do pretty well in the water, I have swum since I was a child."

But he added: "Anybody who wasn't scared in that situation doesn't know the risks they are putting themselves in."

In a wet suit, and wearing fins, snorkel and mask, he said the only unknown for him was how the three yachties would react to being pulled through the water.

He said the sea was warm but rough and although he could not remember how far he swam, Garvan said it was about 20 metres to the liferaft.

"I just asked them how they were going," Wasley said.

The three worked out quickly what order they were leaving with Hielkema first.

When all three were aboard Wasley had a shower and a meal, and got back to his other job.

"Everybody got out safely and a few points for improvement," he said.

Nor was he much bothered by what else could have been in the water.

"Its their home, if they are going to get you, they will get you."

Its was Wasley's second rescue swim.

For Garvan it was his first rescue and he found himself commanding a ship in four-metre swells and 84kmh winds.

The problem came when they stopped and found themselves rolling heavily amidst white caps and spray.

He was pleased no one was hurt.

"They were quite experienced ocean going sailors and they conducted themselves well," Garvan said.

"It was challenging, definitely challenging."

Costello who skippered Django11 said they had taking a big breaking wave from behind.

"We heard a large bang and a cracking noise - pretty ugly noises coming from the back of the boat," he said.

They issued a mayday and a couple of hours later a New Zealand Air Force Orion was overhead.

"It was like having big brother hovering over your shoulder," Costello said

Then they were told the navy was coming rather than a merchant ship.

"We were pretty relieved to hear the navy were en route."

Cooke said the sea was very rough when they saw Wasley getting ready to swim across.

"Right from the start when he jumped in he looked happy, confident in what he was doing," he said.

He was not casual, Cooke said, just confident.

"When we watched Bex leave the raft and swing into the side of the boat, that looked pretty daunting to us - we had to do it next."

Hielkema said when they heard the carbon fibre rudder break they were prepared for what to do.

"We knew what to do, we knew the drill," she said.

They were staying with the boat, because the sea state was massive.

"We were very reluctant to hop into a liferaft, it's a tiny inflatable bouncy castle in 60 knots [111kmh] of breeze," Hielkema said.

She said Wasley put a strap over her attached to a line back to the Otago and she was quickly hauled through the water and on to the ship.

"I got my ankles wet, I was straight up the side of the boat and dry and warm," she said.

Wearing navy kit, they later met up with Wasley.

"The first question we asked Simon was do you have wife and kids, he said yeah," a bubbling Hielkema said.

"So Simon's wife and family, thank you so much for your fantastic dad and husband, he's a great man.

"He did his job exceptionally well, as did everybody on this ship, and we're grateful land humbled for the New Zealand Navy, Otago, as well as Taupo Radio and the Orion."