"We'd crossed that bar for 20 years with no problems"

It was 5am in the morning when John Potter snuck out of bed, leaving Pam, his wife and high school crush, to sleep..

It was 5am in the morning when John Potter snuck out of bed, leaving Pam, his wife and high school crush, to sleep.The retired panel beater, along with his mates Buzz Kronfeld and Oison Frost, enjoyed a day out on the water doing what they loved best – fishing! As midday approached, with a good catch in hand, the three friends prepared to make the trip home.

The journey would involve crossing the Manukau Bar and on to little Huia on the north side of the harbour – a trip that John had made multiple times over 20 odd years.“There was a swell coming in, but it was fairly gentle,” John recalls, “Buzz had checked the weather report and the conditions were supposed to be improving.”

Any thought of getting into trouble was far from the friends’ minds. They put in a trip report to Coastguard and proceeded through the entrance.“It did seem to roughen up a bit,” John recalls, “But it was too late to turn back.”With just 60 metres to go, disaster struck.

“We were on the back of a large wave when an unexpected second large wave appeared right behind us,” John says, “The two waves created a massive hole to the right hand side of the boat and we slid sideways into it, while the second wave crashed over us.”

The boat rolled twice. John and Oison were in the boat’s cockpit at the time. John recalls being flushed out, but he hit his head on the way out and sustained a nasty injury.John thinks Buzz, who was standing at the back of the boat, was washed off first. When he came to the surface, Buzz was clinging to their chilly bin, now empty.Fortunately all three men had their lifejackets on.

Oison swam his way out of the cockpit and was now holding on to the bow of the upturned boat. He too had suffered a nasty gash to his head.Buzz swam over to John.“I told him I was injured bad.”

John and Buzz then swam back to the boat. They managed to get some rope out of the anchor locker, so they had something to hold on to. As the cold set in, they hauled themselves onto the hull of the boat.“How I got up there, I don’t know,” John says, “It must have been the adrenaline.”

Waves knocked the men off twice but they held on for some three hours. John could see the boat was starting to drift dangerously southward towards the Awhitu Peninsula.“Some big rollers were coming in. They flushed us off the boat a third time and that’s when we got separated.”

John was struggling. Bitterly cold, he knew he had to swim to shore away from the boat. He couldn’t use his legs but he was fit – something that would help save his life.“I just got on my back and started paddling with my arms.” John found himself at the mercy of three massive waves as he made his way slowly to shore. “After the third one, I could feel firm ground beneath me. I just crawled out and made my way up onto dry land.”

In the meantime, Buzz and Oison had managed to swim to shore. The waves had carried them 400-500 metres further down the harbour. The two men looked for their skipper but he was nowhere to be seen. Buzz raced up the hill to a nearby property where, fortunately, both a park ranger and volunteer from the fire brigade happened to be.

“Coming down on quadbikes, they found me,” John recalls, “The rescue helicopter was called in to help.”Westpac 1 was involved in the initial search which involved three helicopters and boats, the police and Coastguard. After being diverted to a critical mission in Piha, Westpac 1 returned. The crew transported John, in a serious condition, to Auckland Hospital. This took less than 30 minutes from locating him.

John was in hospital for three weeks. He returned home for Christmas, where he spent a further six weeks recovering on his back.“My pelvis was split open,” John says, “they call it an open book break. They put a titanium plate in.” John also received 18 staples for the wound on his head.“He’s like the Mechano Man!” Pam says.

John is slowly recovering. He hits the gym three days a week and attends ongoing physio sessions.Pam says the rescue helicopter often flies over their home in West Auckland on the way to rescues out on the West Coast. John and Pam were already big supporters through the family business, but now the service has more significance than ever.

John still enjoys his fishing. He bought exactly the same boat. Pam says one lesson he’s learnt from the experience is never to leave without saying goodbye again!

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