SOS from waka crew

Members of the Otaikokako Waka Ama Club in New Plymouth warm up in their shed after their brush with disaster.
Members of the Otaikokako Waka Ama Club in New Plymouth warm up in their shed after their brush with disaster.

Police say six waka crew could have died when they were swamped by icy waters off Port Taranaki last night.

The crew, three women and three men, from the Otaikokako Waka Ama Club in New Plymouth, were about 2.2 kilometres northeast of the harbour entrance when they got into trouble, Constable Wayne Rowlands said.

"They were out on a semi-regular training run and at some point they were swamped by the sea," he said.

"They were very lucky there wasn't a tragedy."

The crew had an emergency beacon, a cellphone and were wearing lifejackets, Rowlands said.

"They set off the epirb [beacon] and were able to make a direct call to Port Taranaki."

The port scrambled one of its boats, the Pacific Runner, which was in the harbour.

The boat went out and located the waka and escorted the crew back into the harbour, Rowlands said.

Once they [waka crew] had activated the beacon they were able to get themselves sorted and get going back towards the harbour again.

The coastguard and surf lifesaving units were about to go out when they heard the Pacific Runner was following the waka back to port.

Rowlands said he did not know why the waka was out in such bad conditions.

The crew went to hospital to be checked out for moderate to minor hypothermia and other minor injuries.

A Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand spokeswoman said the personal locator beacon alerted them just after 6pm. They sent the Westpac rescue helicopter up from Wellington, because the conditions were so rough, and alerted the coastguard.

The helicopter hadn't got very far before they were notified that the Pacific Runner was assisting the waka crew, she said.

Club captain Howie Tamati said the crew were cold and shocked after their ordeal. He got a phone call at 6pm to say there had been an incident and went down to the beach hoping for the best.

Everyone was really upset over the incident and they decided it wasn't the right time to talk about what had happened, he said.

"We're just happy they are alive. And the police and everybody were down there to help and make sure everybody was OK and that was wonderful."

The club takes health and safety very seriously, especially when paddling in the winter on the west coast, he said. They were to have a meeting today to discuss the incident.

"We need to look at what went wrong and how they handled it out there on the water."

The club will do an incident report to check on what procedures were followed, Tamati said.

"We've got a number of safety procedures we ask club members to do and we need to check they followed all those procedures. Then, if there were things that weren't followed that will be part of a report."

Taranaki Daily News