Southland rescues coastguard

CASSANDRA POKONEY AND NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 05:00 24/06/2014
Southland Times photo
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
Bluff Coastguard president Andy Johnson.

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Southland, you've done it.

You've rallied, dug deep and come up with the $1.2 million needed for the new Bluff Coastguard rescue vessel.

Bluff Coastguard president Andy Johnson is thrilled with the response to the Mayday fundraising campaign, with significant support coming from the business sector, community organisations and the public.

The largest grant came from the Lotteries Commission, which gave $300,000, while Perpetual Trust has pledged $200,000.

Donations from the community - either from public donations or from the commercial fishing fleet, totalled about $200,000, while the Bluff Coastguard contributed its own $100,000.

Sizeable donations also came from Environment Southland, the ILT Foundation and the Wilding Trust, while decisions are pending on applications to the Invercargill City Council, Southland District Council and Ngai Tahu.

"I still find it quite humbling to think that the little old Bluff unit has all this support," Johnson said. The contract to commission the building of the boat was signed last week, and aluminium was expected to be cut this week.

The result was a significant achievement and was not only thanks to the community support, but also the hard work put in by the fundraising committee, he said.

At 8.5m and more than 20 years old, the present coastguard boat was coming to the end of its useful life. The new boat would be larger, able to stay on the water longer, and be more fuel efficient.

It was hoped the new boat would be in the water by July next year, Johnson said.

Dallas Reedy, who survived the capsizing of Easy Rider in March 2012, remembers hitting the deck of the Bluff Coastguard vessel after desperately clinging to a petrol container in the icy waters of Foveaux Strait for 18 hours - hoping that he would see his family again.

"I will never forget looking up at the faces on the back of that wee boat," he said.

A bigger and faster rescue boat was going to be even more of a lifesaver in one of the country's most treacherous stretches of water, he said.

"I spend a lot of time diving around Bluff and often watch the coastguard boat head out. It's amazing how those guys take to the water in the strait in that size boat," Reedy said.

"But I'm alive and breathing because of them."

COMMUNITY DIGS DEEP FOR RESCUE BOAT

Andy Johnson is battling emails.

Dollar figures and measurements also somersault around his brain and he can rattle off fundraising tallies like he's reading his shopping list.

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But it is a battle he's happy to be waging as it's all part of his dream of getting a new Bluff Coastguard rescue vessel in the water.

Johnson is president of the Bluff unit, a small team tasked with keeping boaties using one of New Zealand's most notorious stretches of water, safe.

The present vessel is small.

At just 8.5m, it is woefully undersized for what Foveaux Strait commands.

But soon it will be replaced with a much bigger, faster, and more suitable vessel.

One that will allow crews on to the water for longer, will get them to where they need to go in less time, and is capable of carrying more people.

The present boat can steam for three or four hours before having to refuel.

The new boat will be able to carry four times the fuel carried now, and will also be more fuel efficient.

It will be capable of covering the entire area serviced by the Bluff Coastguard - north to Nugget Point, west to Centre Island and south past Stewart Island.

Johnson believes the new 13m boat will be the difference between life and death.

But getting the new boat in the water has not been smooth sailing.

The idea for the replacement was mooted in 2008.

The Bluff unit had been part of the coastguard for only a few years - it was established in 2002 having previously come under the umbrella of a private group - and it uses a 20-plus-year-old boat recycled from Hawke's Bay.

An application for funding for a new vessel was sent to the Community Trust of Southland, and, while the trust seemed poised to hand over the money, exactly what it would be funding was not clear.

Six local boat builders had been approached and came up with six versions of the same thing.

It was a convoluted process and did not work, Johnson says.

So the unit withdrew the funding application and went back to the drawing board.

It did its homework, consulting experts and the national coastguard before taking its wishlist to a naval architect.

Three years later the project started gaining legs but it took a tragedy to get across the final hurdle - money.

Boats don't come cheap, especially boats with the specific requirements of the coastguard.

With no government funding and only $100,000 of its own money, the Bluff Coastguard unit had to come up with $1.2 million to fund the project.

While the process was already ticking along in the background, it was the 2012 capsizing of the Easy Rider that jolted the community into action.

The tragedy, which claimed eight lives and is listed as New Zealand's worst maritime disaster behind the Wahine, struck the Bluff community to its core and the coastguard crew were not immune - in many cases they were searching for family and friends, Johnson says.

But conditions in the strait at the time of the initial search were so rough that the coastguard was very nearly unable to go out.

It was a life and death decision - if the wind had been a fraction stronger, the call would have gone the other way.

Fortunately for sole Easy Rider survivor Dallas Reedy, the coastguard did deploy.

Reedy was spotted clinging to a plastic container by coastguard volunteer Rhys Ferguson. He had been in the water for 18 hours.

If the coastguard had been unable to go out, it is probable the tragedy would have claimed a ninth life, Johnson says.

The incident brought home the realisation that the coastguard could not wait any longer for its new boat.

The Mayday campaign was launched officially in June 2013.

Two years were set aside to generate the funds.

In reality, it took half that time, with the community answering the call for help swiftly and definitively.

Within a month of the fundraising committee being set up, the first $50,000 had been secured.

And the funds continued to flood in.

Major donations came from the Lotteries Commission, Perpetual Trust, local councils, and community funders such as the ILT Foundation and Community Trust of Southland.

But it was the community that really rallied and dug deep in its pockets.

About $100,000 from mum-and-dad contributors have come in so far, while the commercial fishing fleet has also put in more than $100,000.

Donations have come in from all over New Zealand. One came from a man in Hong Kong whose late brother Ben Knight was heavily involved with the Bluff fishing industry. Another donation came from Australia.

"We have never had one detractor; it's been 100 per cent support and they all say they can't understand why it [securing a bigger boat] hasn't happened before now."

The support has astounded Johnson and the committee but, Johnson says, that is fairly representative of the Bluff community and its attitude to Foveaux Strait - the locals know how nasty the stretch of water can be, they know what is needed to keep their loved ones safe. And, with no government funding, they know they sometimes just have to dig in and help come up with the solution.

That solution, or at least part of it, is now under way.

The contract to commission the building of the boat was signed last week and the aluminium will be cut this week.

The boat should be in the water by July next year.

For Johnson it can't come quick enough.

Like a young boy waiting for Christmas, he is counting down the months.

- The Southland Times

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