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The Queens Birthday Storm 1994 - PILOT

As I entered the bridge one of the crewmembers, an engineer rating, had been observing matter said "Oh well done sir". I was somewhat surprised because the gentleman in question was somewhat quiet and one would not always expect such a quiet rating to be that bold to his CO. I was also greatly heartened because this was a guy I had, with some reluctance I admit, punished with reasonable severity in the preceding weeks. Barry's words moved me immensely and demonstrated the total involvement of all of the 'crew' in what was going down. It was the Ship's Company of MONOWAI who endured all the danger, discomfort and difficulty and I was very proud of what they achieved that day and in the other two rescues we performed during the operation.

Without too much ado, though, we set course for the next group requiring our ministrations.

The weather conditions were variable as we weaved our way around this little part of the Pacific. 'Pacific' though was never a word I would have used to describe the situation. I was in frequent touch with the naval liaison officer at the Rescue Coordination Centre, RCC, and with the naval authorities by either Inmarsat (satellite) telephone or naval signal. The telephone rang either in my cabin or in the radio room annex. Sometimes I felt that modern communication methods were somewhat too immediate as our target was frequently changed. I recall at one stage fighting my way across the cabin to the satellite phone about 2200 one evening having been roused from a deep slumber to be greeted with 'Oh, glad you are still up'. I think I just grunted! It was a very fluid situation.

Inmarsat is a great communication medium though a little expensive at times. We were to build up a large bill over the six days in which we were ultimately involved in the operation, but a large part of it was in telephoning the many Press, radio and TV stations who had requested that we call them. There was a lot of interest from stations around the world. The navy (thankfully) would not give out our Inmarsat number but instead agreed to telephone me with a request to return the call on the understanding that we would bill the station later (there was no way we knew of by which we could call collect). To give them their due, every bill we sent was honoured very quickly.

Bill and Robyn were very eager to (as they said) repay us for what we had done by speaking to any of the media people who asked and they beat a regular track to my door. It cannot have been easy for them but they were great!

On one occasion we were asked to chase a liferaft which had been sighted by the airforce and which was an important target as contact had been lost with the NZ yacht, 'Quartermaster' after she had put out a 'Mayday' call. The principal interest was in checking whether anyone was in the raft and, indeed, whether there had been anyone in the raft at any stage. However, I plotted the positions given for the raft and calculated that it was scudding across the ocean at about 7 knots. In the conditions we could only make about 4 knots so I suggested that perhaps we could be more gainfully employed. We were re-diverted towards the main body of yachts.

During the early hours of Monday morning (6 June 1994 - Queens Birthday) an airforce Orion asked us to investigate an unknown yacht which they had spotted, by an incredible stroke of luck, Nothing was known about the yacht, although people could be seen in the cockpit. No radio communications could be had with it and there had been no EPIRB beacon signals from its position. We were asked to assist the crew and, as quickly as possible, to determine whether they had ever had a liferaft and if so whether they had lost it, since they were immediately downwind of the errant liferaft. If it seemed likely that it had come from this yacht then the search for Quartermaster could be refocused.

We made our way towards the position. Knowing nothing of the yacht, and having no means of communicating, a ''Ramtha''type of rescue --which required close coordination between the two parties - was clearly out of the question. The weather had improved somewhat - to a 'mere' 35 to 40 knots with about a 4 to 5 metre swell, and we felt that a boat could be launched. The duty crew - Leading Seaman Whata and Able Seaman Hemopo - was briefed along with Sub Lieutenant Bradley Tong who was briefed to quickly ascertain information about the yacht so that it could be passed to the Orion in order that the aircraft need not be unnecessarily detained from more pressing duties.

All hands on the bridge peered forward as we approached the given position. Nothing could be seen until suddenly, about 2 cables (400 metres) ahead, a small white dismasted yacht was suddenly spotted atop a large swell. Then we lost it again. I later found out that the yacht's crew had been sitting in the cockpit, feeling all alone but comforted somewhat by the presence of the Orion. They saw a rainbow a little way off and suddenly saw (to them) a large ship appear in the middle of the bow heading towards them!

I altered to my launch course and the deck and boat crews were warned out. I altered course several times in an effort to find the best launch course. The boat was launched from a HIAB crane on the starboard boatdeck level with the bridge and it was necessary to reduce the ship motion as much as possible since with the boat at waterlevel there was a 16 metre long pendulum to cope with. It was very difficult at the best of times (and usually impossible after a certain point in the proceedings) for the deck crew to control the boat with the lines due to the almost vertical angles. No course seemed very satisfactory but I ultimately decided to launch 'down sea' (i.e. with the sea and swell on our port quarter.) as the sea and swell were confused and coming from different directions.

The launch was achieved successfully though not without some anxious moments - and this was only from those of us looking safely on from the ship! The RHIB (a rigid-hulled inflatable boat) was frequently out of sight as we hovered in the general vicinity. Occasionally the bright orange clothing of the crew could be seen through the foaming sea.

They reached the yacht and Bradley boarded. The crew of the yacht, which turned out to be the American yacht 'Pilot', were apparently somewhat bemused to be faced with a number of administrative questions in the middle of the seething ocean before their rescuers would apparently do anything. (We later explained the reasoning to them and they seemed satisfied!) The tension in Bradley's voice was evident as he radioed the details across to us including the tortological statement 'two POB on board'. He also advised us that the vessel had never had a liferaft (which we found astonishing at the time, but later accepted the crew's rationale and explanation of their alternatives) and had no radio callsign. The Orion then sped off to other matters requiring their ministrations. Pilot's crew boarded the RHIB after the skipper had opened the toilet valves in the boat so that she would not remain a hazard to surface vessels.

The recovery of the boat was far more gut-wrenching than the launching. Though I steamed the exact same course, the 20 minutes since the launch had seen a change in conditions which seemed even more confused. Faced with five people in a boat for which I was responsible I was not terribly happy!

Whata brought the boat skillfully alongside though it looked at one stage as if he had lost control, the boat ending up perpendicular to the ship at about a foot off, and filling with water from the main engine cooling discharge. The boat's manoeuvrability and his skill saved the day and she quickly lined up under the fall. Hooked on and jerked from the water the boat came into contact with the hull several times as the ship rolled. The boat would swing away from the ship and then came thudding in despite the deck crew's best efforts. The pinched faces of those in the boat were obvious from the bridge and one could discern that the yacht's crew were wondering whether their current situation was preferable to their original one! Everyone was holding on very tightly indeed!

The boat was eventually recovered inboard and we met the people. 'Low budget cruisers' who were not actually part of the regatta but who were on their way to Tonga, Greg Forbes and Barbara Parkes had been sailing for around 7 years in their small vessel. Greg's surname caused some comment but he was, of course, no relation to our other yachtsmen! Apart from being somewhat weary and a, little cold, they were fine and very quickly became a vital part of our crew, throwing themselves into the ship's life and work.

The operation continued ...

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