Surf Life Saving’s Gisborne Emergency Call Out crew recognised for high seas rescue as boat drifted toward reef

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Four surf lifeguards from the Gisborne Emergency Call Out Squad (ECOS) have been awarded Surf Life Saving New Zealand’s (SLSNZ) prestigious BP Rescue of the Month award for December, after a daring rescue in massive storm waves on Christmas Eve.

Formed last year, the Gisborne ECOS were called out to rescue a couple from their 12-metre boat called Mazurka after a mayday call in the early afternoon and subsequently launched two Inflatable Rescue Boats (IRB) with four crew, assisted by two more surf lifeguards on shore.

With deteriorating conditions, the rescue was “risky” and relied upon the skills and expertise of the highly-experienced crew including Justin Martin, Matt Kemp, Andrew Shelton and Alan Thorpe.

Unfortunately, it was a bad day for the two passengers on the boat when its anchor line failed, followed by its engine, leaving only idling power. To make matters worse, the Mazurka was being thrown around by the rough seas with waves as high as four meters and was drifting to nearby Monowai Reef at Whangara Beach, north of Gisborne.

After receiving the mayday call, Police tasked the Gisborne ECOS alongside the local Coastguard crew to help rescue the stranded boat and its passengers.

The team was quickly put together and within a short timeframe, the two IRBs were headed for the stricken boat through the “treacherous” and “incredibly horrendous” waters. 

The two IRBs were the first to reach the Mazurka, with Thorpe bravely jumping into the water and boarding the heavily pitching boat to help the young Scottish couple on board. 

They needed to get the 23-year-old woman off the Mazurka and back to safety, but the sea was too rough to transfer her directly into the IRB from the boat. So, Thorpe swam her back to the IRB which then took her back to shore.

The conditions had continued to worsen through the afternoon, and darkness was creeping in early because of the storm. At the time of the rescue, one of the squad members said “when we turned to go home, I could barely see land because of the swells, the sea mist and rain.”

Kemp and Thorpe stayed in their IRB next to the Mazurka to provide support to its skipper until the Gisborne Coastguard boat arrived to take control of the vessel and relieve the skipper, meaning he too could disembark the boat.

Once the Coastguard were able to take control of the Mazurka, the 32-year-old man who had been skippering it, was transferred onto the remaining IRB and Kemp drove him back to his wife on the beach.

The Coastguard crew then began towing the Mazurka to Eastland Port where it was able to stay over Christmas. 

The potential for major environmental damage was also significant, with the boat fully laden with diesel and heading for the reef. Being able to work so effectively with the Coastguard to ensure the safety of the people on board and remove the boat from the dangerous situation, meant both human lives were saved and a potentially major environmental disaster averted.

Renee Wikaire, Club Support Officer for Tairawhiti, said it was an incredible rescue and without the intervention of these local surf lifeguards, it could have been a completely different outcome.

“Without a doubt, this was an incredibly brave rescue in terrible conditions and probably would have ended very differently if these surf lifeguards didn’t intervene. Being able to ensure the safety and wellbeing of both passengers and getting them back to shore meant they were able to celebrate Christmas with their loved ones.”

“This rescue also goes to show the importance of the Gisborne Emergency Call Out Squad and how valuable they are to the community. This rescue in particular took a high degree of skill, so having this highly-experienced crew available at such short notice was absolutely vital,” she added.

She also adds it was a fantastic collaboration between surf lifeguards and Coastguard, who are both “aiming for the same thing. Zero fatalities on the beach and sea.”

At the time of the incident, Constable Andrew Trafford of Tolaga Bay Police told the Gisborne Herald that it was a “truly amazing rescue.”

“These guys were all dragged away from their families the day before Christmas to put their own lives at risk to save the lives of others. They worked tirelessly all afternoon and into the evening.

“It was a great result and could have very easily ended up as a double tragedy,” he added.

BP NZ Managing Director Debi Boffa said the skills demonstrated by the team in the rescue were outstanding. 

“Since 1968 we have been proud to stand behind this amazing organisation who help save the lives of thousands of people every year as well as educate people about how to stay safe on our beaches,” she said.

For their efforts, the Gisborne ECOS will get a $500 BP gift-card and formal recognition of a job well done.

Also getting BP gift cards, is Whangamata Surf Life Saving Club and Paekakariki Surf Life Saving Club who take home $300 and $200 respectively for their efforts in saving lives during December.

SLSNZ National Lifesaving Manager, Allan Mundy, extended his congratulations to all clubs who submitted an entry for BP Rescue of the Month because “they’re all deserving of recognition.”

“Every single rescue is important to keeping Kiwis safe, so well done to all our surf lifeguards who saved lives over Christmas. But a special congratulations and thanks to the Gisborne crew, and lifeguards at Whangamata and Paekakariki who have really made an impact this summer season.”

The next round of BP Rescue of the Month will be announced later in February, with any rescue taking place in January eligible for the prestigious award.

Submit your BP Rescue of the Month entry for January rescues here.

Photo thanks to The Gisborne Herald

For more information, please contact:

Alana McIsaac, Media & Communications Manager
Phone 027 515 7157