October 30, 2023
Images from the rescue of a yachtie on North Cape on Sunday morning show particularly wild weather, with the helicopter pilot who flew him to safety saying the winds were comparable with Cyclone Gabrielle.
MetService meteorologist Alain Baillie said wind gusts of 142 kilometres had already been recorded at Cape Rēinga, similar to the gusts that Cyclone Gabrielle brought earlier this year.
The winds caused swells of up to 10m at times, which battered a 12m yacht off the coast of the Cape and led to a dramatic rescue on Sunday.
The skipper signalled for help around 9am Sunday after the Juan Sabulan began to take on water, which the Northland and Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter crews soon responded to.
The sea conditions were so rough, Northland Rescue Helicopter co-pilot Bernie McQueen kept watch on the swells, warning pilot Steve Couchman to lift the aircraft away from dangerous surges of water as they hovered near the stricken yacht.
It was an “unusual” set of weather conditions for a crew used to battling stormy elements, he said. While the trip there over land was typically rough, with hills causing the wind to gust and shift, flying offshore was generally smoother even when the wind was strong because the sea was a flat tableau.
That changed over the rescue site, he said, with the swells so large - regularly at 10m - that it disrupted the wind and buffeted the helicopter. He said the sea was becoming even rougher as the crew prepared to carry out the rescue, and they even discussed the conditions under which they would have to abandon the effort.
Couchman said the yachtie had been in contact with the helicopter via a two-way radio and they worked through language difficulties enough to understand he had no life raft. They were also able to clarify he was the only person aboard - it was initially thought there were two on board.
However, the yachtie did have the yacht’s inflatable runabout for motoring to shore and was able to remove the lashes binding it to the boat and get it into the water. From there, the yachtie got into the small inflatable boat and was swept away from the yacht.
The helicopter dropped to between 10-15m above the sea to put paramedic swimmer Dan Short into the water so that winch operator Richard Sharp, who is also a critical care paramedic, could bring the pair aboard. At times, Couchman said McQueen would warn of a “big swell coming” so he could lift the helicopter away from incoming swells.
The French man’s yacht was last seen off the left-hand side of the helicopter as it returned to land - the same side of the aircraft its owner was sitting on. “It’ll go past the top of New Zealand,” said Couchman.
He said the yachtie “did the right thing” in recognising the danger he was in - and leaving the yacht after realising there was no other option other than to abandon it.
“He was very thankful,” said Couchman, who delivered the man to Kerikeri Airport, where he was met by Customs and Police staff. The yachtie arrived with his passport, phone charger and phone. “I shook his hand and said, ‘Welcome to New Zealand’,” said Couchman.
Couchman said swells forecast to be 6m were up to 10m at times, with wind gusts of up to 50 knots - a similar wind strength to Cyclone Gabrielle back in February.
Elsewhere across Northland, Baillie warned residents to secure their trampolines and not to head out in caravans, which are liable to tip over in exposed places.
“Expect power outages and road blockages,” Baillie said.
Baillie said from midday on Sunday, it would be “a dangerous next 18 hours”. Rainfall of 20 to 30 millimetres has already been recorded across Northland on Sunday, with much of it from early that afternoon.
Baillie said there was “plenty more to come”, with peak rates of 15-25mm per hour tipped to hit the country.
An orange strong wind warning came into effect for the region at 9am Sunday. Damaging gusts of up to 130km/h in exposed places were expected until 6am on Monday. An orange heavy rain warning also came into effect from midday yesterday and would remain in place through to 6am today.
Civil Defence Northland communications specialist Zach Woods said “extra caution” was advised for the east coast of Northland on Sunday night because of storm surges and high tides.
“The main concern is tonight, with trees falling potentially and causing power outages and road blockages.
“For those out on the roads, take extra care. There may be hazards we don’t know about that have just happened.”