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Real life rescue stories

Antarctic Chieftain

After damaging it’s propeller, the Antarctic Chieftain became boxed in by ice floes. RCCNZ worked with the United States Coast Guard to rescue the 26-person crew trapped aboard the fishing vessel.

ship trapped in ice

Recently, RCCNZ was involved in the rescue of the Antarctic Chieftain.
Maritime New Zealand 2020

Thirteen New Zealanders were among the crew that was freed from the ice five days after having to call for assistance. The US Coast Guard icebreaker CGC Polar Star steamed several hundred nautical miles to reach their position.

An Australian-flagged vessel, the Antarctic Chieftain got into difficulty after damaging three of the four blades of its propeller. Although it was immediately surrounded by clear water, the vessel became boxed in by ice floes about 900 nautical miles (1700 km) northeast of McMurdo Sound; at the eastern edge of New Zealand’s search and rescue region.

Polar Star Commanding Officer Captain Matthew Walker says the conditions were more formidable than expected, with heavy snow and large icebergs.

After breaking the ice around the 63-metre Antarctic Chieftain, the crew of the cutter deployed an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) to assess the vessel’s propeller.

Mike Hill, Manager RCCNZ & Safety Services, says the hull of the boat had remained undamaged, there was no spill of oil from the vessel, and the crew were well-provisioned.

The Polar Star towed the stricken vessel back to clearer waters, where the RCCNZ had also coordinated with shipping companies to have a former sister ship, Janas, standing by in case further assistance was required.

Both vessels were toothfishing in the region for the summer season.

Once clear of the ice, the Antarctic Chieftain managed the return journey under its own power over the next two and a half weeks, reaching its home port of Nelson, New Zealand, for repairs on March 3.

Les Scott, the Managing Director of the vessel’s owner, Australian Longline Pty, says “we would like to offer our most sincere appreciation of the quick and professional response given”.

“We’d especially like to thank RCCNZ for managing the operation; along with the Master and crew of the Polar Star for the professionalism and support given to the Chieftain in getting it to a safer position. We are also very grateful to the crew and owners of the Janas for providing the Chieftain with the escort back towards NZ.”

“Based on what we have heard from the crew of the Chieftain, it is apparent that the freeing of the vessel was skilfully undertaken by the crews of both vessels thereby avoiding a situation which could have become significantly more concerning.”

Amaltal Columbia

RCCNZ successfully coordinated the rescue of Amaltal Columbia, a fishing vessel, that caught fire 8 nautical miles (70 kilometres) north-east of the Lyttelton Heads, off the coast of Canterbury.

ship adrift in the ocean
Lifeboats were used to transfer most of the crew.
Maritime New Zealand 2020

A fire in the fish meal hold of the 64 metre Talley’s vessel prompted a pan-pan radio call at 5.19am, indicating the vessel was in trouble but not in immediate danger.

This was followed by a mayday call six minutes later. The Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) relayed the mayday call and two other fishing vessels – Ivan Golubets and San Discovery – responded and steamed to the scene.

The MOC notified the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) who coordinated the rescue, tasking an RNZAF P3 Orion, which was already in the area, to take position above the Amaltal Columbia shortly after the mayday call. A helicopter from Christchurch was also tasked to assist with any urgent evacuations.

The Amaltal Columbia continued steaming towards Lyttelton at around seven knots with the affected hold sealed off in an effort to starve the fire of oxygen.

The two other fishing boats arrived in position around 8am, with the vessel eventually losing power as a result of the fire. The order to abandon ship was given shortly after 9am.

The crew were transferred from the stricken vessel into lifeboats and then on to fishing boats, with 39 taken on board Ivan Golubets and the remainder on San Discovery. With a 3 metre swell and winds of 15–25 knots, this was not an easy process, but it was completed without injuries.

Subsequently, the vessel was deemed safe to be reboarded by the master, who was accompanied by a small party. It was taken under tow by San Discovery and arrived in Lyttelton early the following morning.

Search and Rescue Mission Coordinator Tracy Brickles said the safe transfer of crew off the vessel was an excellent result.

“The priority in these situations is always the safety of the crew. Thanks must go to the masters of Ivan Golubets and San Discovery for their prompt response.”

vessel on fire at sea
RCCNZ coordinated the rescue of the Amaltal Columbia, which caught fire
Maritime NZ 2020

After its catch had been unloaded in Lyttelton – miraculously undamaged – the Amaltal Columbia was towed to Nelson for repair.

Crewman collapse at sea

Maritime Radio reported that a 19-metre fishing vessel about 40 miles off the coast of Oamaru had a crewman who returned on deck from the hold and collapsed with chest pains and breathing difficulties.

a person suspended above a boat at sea
A paramedic prepares to winch the crewman to safety.
Maritime New Zealand 2020

Maritime Radio reported that a 19-metre fishing vessel about 40 miles off the coast of Oamaru had a crewman who returned on deck from the hold and collapsed with chest pains and breathing difficulties.

Medical specialists recommended that he be evacuated to hospital. Otago Helicopters was tasked with an advanced paramedic while the fishing vessel hauled its gear and started making for the coast. The crewman was winched on board the helicopter and taken to Dunedin for treatment.

people being winched off a boat at sea
The crewman was successfully taken to hospital for treatment
Maritime NZ 2020


An intensive search failed to locate the Tafadzwa, but it was spotted hundreds of kilometres away several weeks after the search was suspended.

a boat with shredded sail adrift at sea
The Tafadzwa was spotted near the Chatham Islands, with shredded sails.
Maritime New Zealand 2020

The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand’s (RCCNZ) coordination of the search was initiated on Monday, 15 March, when South African man Paul van Rensburg was reported overdue from a journey between Tauranga and Gisborne.

Accompanied by his dog Juanita, Mr van Rensburg had set sail from Tauranga on his 11 metre steel yacht Tafadzwa the previous Friday, 12 March, with the expectation his ocean voyage would take two days and he would arrive in time for work in Gisborne on Monday morning.

Although the yacht was equipped with the appropriate communications and safety gear, Mr van Rensburg’s last known contact was a phone call he made to his partner Kristen on the afternoon of his departure.

RCCNZ’s involvement with the search began when the centre was informed by Police that Mr van Rensburg was overdue in the early afternoon of Monday 15 March. Police had coordinated an unsuccessful aerial search of the coast to Hicks Bay that afternoon, and RCCNZ-coordinated aerial searches began the following morning.

Concerns mounted for Mr van Rensburg as time passed with no contact from the experienced sailor. There was speculation the yacht might have been hit by a severe storm that struck the east coast very early on Saturday morning.

Predictive software was used to map possible paths of the yacht if it was drifting, but there were significant challenges in pinpointing its likely whereabouts, partly due to the time lapse between the last known contact with Mr van Rensburg and when he was reported overdue, and partly due to the lack of any confirmed sightings of the vessel.

Extensive coastal and oceanic searches over three days by a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion and three other aircraft – covering approximately 96,000 square nautical miles (328,000 square kilometres) and searching areas far beyond the computer-predicted drift of a disabled yacht – failed to locate any sign of the missing vessel.

The search was suspended on the evening of 18 March.

During the search there was significant media interest, including from South Africa, and much speculation about the yacht’s fate. This interest continued in the following days.

Although the search was suspended, RCCNZ continued to seek and investigate information relating to the missing vessel with, among other activities, marine radio broadcasts asking for reports of any sightings of the yacht, or new information that may have supported further search efforts.

A reported sighting sparked a short aerial search on 20 March, but was later confirmed to be a false alarm.

RCCNZ continued to work with Mr van Rensburg’s family to examine whether any possible scenarios had been overlooked.

RCCNZ also sought technical assistance from the US Coastguard, using satellite imagery to search an area much further east of New Zealand and approximately the same size as the area already searched. Unfortunately, this yielded no useful information.

Ten days after the search was suspended, on the afternoon of 28 March, an Air Force P3 Orion on a training exercise found Tafadzwa about 60 nautical miles (110 kilometres) west of the Chatham Islands. The yacht’s sails were up, but badly torn, and there was no sign of activity on deck.

RCCNZ diverted the nearest fishing vessel in the vicinity to the yacht, but no one responded to the fishing crew’s loud hailer and the crew were unable to board safely because of failing light and heavy seas.

When Tafadzwa was boarded the next morning, Mr van Rensburg was not there. His life raft, emergency locator beacon and other emergency equipment were all still on board. His dog, Juanita, was in the cockpit, alive.

The yacht was towed to Wainui Harbour in the Chatham Islands and Juanita was placed in the temporary care of the local policeman, attracting significant media interest.

With limited evidence available, MNZ’s safety inquiry into the yacht’s fate was inconclusive. The GPS equipment on board showed only the last 24 miles of the yacht’s journey – while it was being towed in to Wainui Harbour.

The last of the positions marked on the navigational charts, which had previously been marked at regular intervals, was just east of Cape Runaway on East Cape at 3am on 13 March, the morning after Mr van Rensburg’s departure from Tauranga.

MNZ has concluded its safety inquiry, but a Police investigation into Mr van Rensburg’s disappearance is continuing.

Mr van Rensburg’s family arrived in New Zealand shortly after Tafadzwa was found. During their visit, they spent time at RCCNZ, the Chatham Islands and East Cape. Before their departure, the family released a public statement expressing their “heartfelt thanks” to RCCNZ for its efforts and support during the search for Mr van Rensburg. The family also thanked Police and all those who had supported them during their time in New Zealand.

man lifting dog off a boat
Juanita was recovered from the cockpit of the Tafadzwa
Maritime NZ 2020

Glider crash

Glide Omarama reported that a glider piloted by a Canadian visitor had crashed into the head of Timaru Creek, in hill country west of Lindis Pass.

crashed glider with injured pilot
The Canadian pilot crashed west of Lindis Pass and was found alive.
Maritime New Zealand 2020

Glide Omarama reported that a glider piloted by a Canadian visitor had crashed into the head of Timaru Creek, in hill country west of Lindis Pass. The glider was seen to go down by other pilots in a competition, but could not be raised by radio.

A personal locator beacon and a fixed ELT were then detected. A helicopter with winch and paramedic was sent to the scene, and other authorities advised. The pilot was found alive, with a suspected broken ankle but otherwise okay.

crashed glider with helicopter landed in the background
Rescuers approach the glider.
Maritime NZ 2020

Swedish tourists rescued

Sometimes the difference between life and death can be determined by a quick but careful move to action.

map of the southern alps new zealand
In January 2017, two Swedish tourists were swept down swollen river waters in the foothills of the Southern Alps.
Maritime New Zealand 2020

Late afternoon in January 2017, two Swedish tourists were swept down the swollen head waters of the Waimakariri River in the foothills of the Southern Alps. They were separated in the flood waters and seriously unprepared for a night in near freezing conditions, soaked through and caught out in the open. Luckily one of them was able to activate a personal locator beacon (PLB). Within an hour, a helicopter was on scene, airlifting the couple to safety.

The PLB had transmitted its alert and GPS location to one of the new generation of international search and rescue satellites – there are now more satellites, they are more sophisticated, and each one “sees” more of the Earth’s surface at any one time. The satellite relayed the alert and location to a ground station, which forwarded it to the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) in Lower Hutt. RCCNZ received that information within minutes of the PLB having been activated.

Aware of a forecast for deteriorating weather, the Search Mission Coordinator John Ashby immediately made contact with the Christchurch rescue helicopter, to discuss local weather conditions and whether a helicopter rescue was possible.

The helicopter operator indicated that there was clear weather to the south, and because the alert was at a low level (500m), he might be able to get in ahead of the deteriorating weather and fly below the worst turbulence.

In about 20 minutes the helicopter was airborne with rescue crew and paramedic on board. Although they made slow and difficult progress due to the bad weather and difficult winds, the covered the approximately 120 kilometres in just over 35 minutes.

The crew located the couple just before 6pm, uplifting and treating them on the flight back to Christchurch. When they were uplifted, one of the pair was hypothermic with everything in their pack, including their synthetic sleeping bag, wet through.

When the tourists were located the temperature was 5°C and falling fast, with winds of 30 knots taking the chill factor to freezing. Without the distress alert, and rapid response by RCCNZ and the rescue helicopter, the rescue would have had to be delayed until the weather had cleared and it was safe to fly, or a ground team could make their way in. It is unlikely that anyone would have got to the pair until the following day, and had they been out overnight, their chances would have been grim.

Close call for father and son boaties

Nelson boatie Blair Taylor learnt the hard way recently that you need reliable communications to call for help when in trouble at sea – and even more importantly: If in doubt don’t go out.

bay inlet with yachts in the water
Boulder Bank, Nelson Haven.
Maritime New Zealand 2020

Blair, 33, had a close call off the Nelson coast with his 10-year-old son, William, and he urges other boaties to prepare properly before heading off-shore. When the wind picked up and his five-metre run-about was swamped by waves in a turning tide, the pair ended up treading water five kilometres off Boulder Bank.

The experience has taught them to check the weather forecast, and to take two types of communications device that work when wet – like a distress beacon and a hand-held VHF radio.

It was blind luck that saved the father and son. Nobody was nearby and the only way they had to contact emergency services was via a smartphone that Blair’s wife had fortunately bought for him just the day before.

As they bobbed in the swells, in their lifejackets, Blair was surprised the phone remained waterproof enough for him to call 111. He then called his wife to make sure help was on the way. Just as William was starting to really feel the cold, the pair was picked up by Coastguard – who was directed to the location by Police using binoculars from a hilltop.

Blair says next time he will check more carefully that the weather is going to be suitable for boating, and carry the right type of communications when on the water.

He says “my mate and I are getting PLBs (personal locator beacons) to strap to our lifejackets. I understand now how important it is to have some way to call for help on you at all times”.

“I was just so lucky my wife had bought me the phone and my son reminded me to take it with us when we jumped overboard. While the iPhone is supposed to stay waterproof for half an hour, a rescue beacon or VHF radio would have been safer options.”

“This experience has made me realise that lots of boaties are not prepared when they head out from shore.”

Blair says he was also fortunate he had had water safety training when working on commercial vessels, and he knew he and his son needed to stay calm. The near miss has reminded him that boaties:

  • Must check the forecast that the weather is going to be suitable for recreational boating
  • Should trust their instinct and turn back if the wind and sea conditions deteriorate;
  • That lifejackets save lives;
  • And to take two forms of waterproof communication devices to call for help if need be.

This summer Maritime NZ and the Safer Boating Forum is raising awareness about the need for boaties make sure they take two ways to communicate for help – in addition to checking the weather and wearing lifejackets. VHF radios can be permanently attached to the vessel, or hand-held VHF radios can be carried on a person or in a grab-bag nearby. Every vessel with a VHF radio acts as a ‘station’ and can come to the rescue of others if they hear a distress alert on the emergency Channel 16, or a local channel.

Recreational boaties who get into difficulty can get help quicker if they are able alert the crews of nearby vessels, and make direct contact with the Maritime Operations Centre. The centre then puts out an alert to all vessels in the vicinity and to the 24/7 Rescue Coordination Centre of New Zealand (RCCNZ). Search and Rescue Officers (SAROs) raise the alarm with Police, Coastguard or other rescuers as required. RCCNZ also monitors signals from distress beacons, which has the benefit of transmitting an exact location. SAROs then check with the emergency contacts for the registered beacon to learn what rescue services - such as the crews of a helicopters, or Police and Coastguard patrol boats - can expect when they arrive on the scene. This includes how many are in the party and the intended activity, such as fishing or sailing.

Ideally two forms of communication should be carried by boaties – such as a VHF radio and a distress beacon.

man and boy standing side by side
Blair Taylor, 33, with his 10-year-old son, William.
Maritime New Zealand 2020

Arthur's Pass lost trampers resuced from river bed.

A distress beacon brought help to three trampers – one with signs of hypothermia – who were airlifted from Arthur’s Pass river by the Greymouth Rescue Helicopter.

Greymouth Rescue Helicopter rescues lost trampers from river bed.

West Coast LandSAR 2021

Rescue Coordination Centre NZ and NZ Police oversaw the rescue of the lost trampers after the group activated their beacon at 8 pm.
The men had taken a wrong turn, got lost and ended up the Deception River, Arthur's Pass National Park. They were nowhere near the hut they planned to be and the weather turned on them.
Due to the bad weather, a LandSAR team walked in and met the group at 3 am. The team set up tents and dry sleeping bags and waited with the trampers until morning for a weather window to all a helicopter pick up.