Councillor survives Fiji yacht sinking

A Southland woman and her two Australian travel companions are lucky to be alive after being shipwrecked off the coast of Fiji.

Environment Southland councillor Ali Timms, Cameron Slagle and Elizabeth Schoch found themselves in shark-infested waters and heavy swells after the yacht they were aboard struck a reef and sank.

Their lifeboat also sank before they were rescued by an American seafarer and took refuge on a tropical island resort named after none other than Robinson Crusoe.

Speaking to The Southland Times from her Nadi hotel last night, Ms Timms said the experience had left her reeling.

"I'm just coming out the other side of it ... I'm just getting my head around it. I'm probably only going into shock now." Ms Timms said she planned to fly out of Fiji tomorrow before declining to comment further.

The owner of Robinson Crusoe Island, "Captain" Paul McCulloch, said the trio's rescue was a story fit for the pages of Defoe's famous novel — the namesake of his island.

Trouble began for the trio while sailing their 10m ketch, Timella, through rough seas off the south-west coast of Viti Levu on Sunday, he said.

They had left Suva in the morning and were heading south to Kandavu Island in 5m swells and 75kmh winds when the yacht experienced engine problems and boiling water burst from the radiator, scalding Mr Slagle.

Mr Slagle headed for a nearby cove, steering between two islands but struck a reef shortly before midnight.

Mr Slagle made a mayday call by VHF radio before the three decided to abandon ship.

The yacht's inflatable dinghy was big enough for only two people, so Ms Schoch and Ms Timms climbed in as Mr Slagle clung to the side.

The dinghy was still tied to the boat and the mast punctured the dinghy, which also sank.

Suffering cut feet from the coral reef beneath them, Ms Timms began showing signs of hypothermia, Mr McCulloch said.

"It was pretty touch and go. She said she couldn't have held on for much longer." The Fijian navy was unable to launch a rescue ship because of the conditions and the mayday call was eventually relayed to the New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre via its Fijian counterpart and the New Zealand High Commission to Fiji, where a cruising catamaran captained by an American on holiday with his wife and two children came to the rescue, he said.

Maurice Sonti sailed for two hours, from his position south of the Vatu Lele Islands to reach Beqa reef, and pulled the trio aboard around 6.30am on Monday.

"His exact words were: `My name is Maurice, I'm your rescuer today'," Mr McCulloch said. "He said he'd seen it in a movie and it seemed a good way of keeping people calm." Mr Sonti, an experienced rescue diver, sailed the stranded crew to Robinson Crusoe Island, arriving about midday on Monday, Mr McCulloch said.

The shipwrecked sailors arrived on the island with only the clothes on their backs and their passports in a sealed plastic bag, he said.

"We gave them a couple of cold beers and accomodation in one of our eco-lodges for the night." Mr Slagle and Ms Schoch flew to Brisbane late yesterday.


The Southland Times