Skipper slams Fijian inaction

01:43, Jan 31 2009
Maurice Conti putting on rescue gear moments before going to rescue survivors of the sinking yacht Timella.

The skipper of a yacht that sank off Fiji on Sunday has slammed Fijian rescue authorities for a lack of response that left him and his two companions in the water for more than six hours.

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

Their lifeboat also sank before they were rescued by an American seafarer Maurice Conti at daybreak on Monday.

On dry land (clockwise from left) Ali Timms, Elizabeth Schoch, Cameron Slagle, Sophie and Maurice Conti.

Speaking to The Southland Times from Brisbane yesterday, Mr Slagle described the Fijian response to the emergency rapidly unfolding off the coast as "disgusting" .

"There was absolutely no response whatsoever," he said.

"They had no fuel to put in their vessels to save us, there was no airlift and they couldn't get their men out of bed." Speaking from Fiji, Mr Conti said he believed the political situation had a lot to do with any lack of action but the "net response was very little happened" . "The local authorities in Suva, both the police and the navy, clearly made the best possible effort they could," he said.


The rescue boat Ocealys.

"They were also critically hampered by a lack of training and especially a lack of resources. The SAR (search and rescue) team were literally scrambling to find fuel and crew for their boats." Deputy Fiji Navy chief Commander John Fox said yesterday a rescue boat was set to sail to Vatulele at first light but the Contis got there first. No other explanation was offered.

The New Zealand High Commission in Suva, who played a critical role in the rescue, would also not be drawn on the Fijian response.

However, a commission spokesman singled out the Contis for their heroism.

"The High Commission notes the bravery of the catamaran crew, who undertook the rescue in rough conditions and hopes to have the opportunity to convey this in person." The lack of a co-ordinated rescue has left Mr Slagle angry as he celebrated his birthday yesterday.

"I'm celebrating life and having a wake at the same time for my life that's gone — it's heartbreaking for me." He planned to reunite with Ms Schoch last night to talk about the experience, celebrate survival, his birthday and commiserate the loss of his yacht and home for the past eight years, he said.

The sinking of the Timella spelled the end of a chapter of his life and had sailed "half the world" since his odyssey began in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and his crew had been maintained by people he had met along the way, including Ms Timms whom he had met in Rarotonga, he said.

He had lost everything on board the Timella, which was uninsured.

In another twist, Mr Conti — a San Francisco native, who along with his wife Sophie and two children sold everything they owned for a life on the seas a year ago — revealed his was the only boat to hear the Timella's mayday calls — by chance.

"We usually turn the radio off at night because there's a lot of chatter and we want to sleep — it was a very quiet night and I forgot." In an interview on Campbell Live last night, survivor Ali Timms told John Campbell how she believed she had been close to not surviving.

"I think I only had another hour." Then, between the huge swell, she spotted her rescuers in their yacht.

"He (Maurice Conti) heard our mayday — he was the one who heard it. He's a real hero, he and his wife." The experience was one which would probably change her life, she said.

"Just to go through something like that ... you find out

The Southland Times