The skill and professionalism of the chopper crew who carried out a dramatic sea rescue far off the Northland coast was nothing short of “mindblowing”, the vessel’s skipper says.
Phil Dent, the Melbourne-based owner and
skipper of PatriotX, had to perform emergency surgery on a crewmate who fell seriously ill more than 300km offshore — guided by a surgeon watching via satellite internet — then witnessed an extraordinary rescue that pushed the Northland Rescue Helicopter to its limits.
Dent left Ōpua Marina last Thursday on what was supposed to be a trip to Fiji via Minerva Reefs with an old mate among his crew. By the next morning, however, James, 75, had developed a serious medical problem. By then the 18-metre boat was already 185 nautical miles (340km) out to sea.
When antibiotics didn’t help, Dent called a surgeon friend in Australia, using a Starlink satellite internet receiver he dubbed “Musky” after company founder Elon Musk. Dent had also prepared for long ocean voyages by assembling, with a doctor’s advice, a trauma kit packed with emergency medical equipment.
As James’ condition became increasingly painful and life-threatening, and with the surgeon guiding him via the FaceTime video app, Dent — who described himself as “a bad mechanic on a good day” — carried out an emergency surgical procedure using a piece of equipment he likened to a 12-gauge needle.
The improvised surgery was a success but James was still in agonising pain. By then the vessel had already turned around and was heading back to Ōpua into “a horrendous head-on sea”.
Dent contacted Maritime NZ to request an ambulance as soon they reached land; next thing he knew a paramedic was on the phone, and a decision was made to get James off the boat as soon as possible.
Around 9.30pm Dent was told the Northland Rescue Helicopter was being readied for a rescue mission with a Westpac chopper as backup.
Northland’s Sikorsky S-76 choppers have the longest range of any rescue helicopter in New Zealand but the location of PatriotX was at its limit, even after a refuelling stop in Kerikeri.
Dent said his first radio contact with the chopper crew, spelling out exactly what he had to do, was about 11.15pm on Friday. When he turned around, the vessel was buffeted by 20-30 knot winds and swells of up to 4m. Fortunately, conditions had eased by the time the chopper arrived but the wind was still around 20 knots. At that point the boat was 240km northeast of the Bay of Islands.
The rescue was “just mindblowing”, Dent said.
The chopper had to come in so low — he estimated it was 12-15 metres above the vessel — he was asked to take down the boat’s aerials, which he was unable to do.
“A couple of times I thought he was going to land on the roof … then at one stage we thought we’d lost him and he’d have to abort, but he came back again and slotted the paramedic straight into the back of the boat. He just slid down the rope, boom! And 30 seconds later he was inside the cabin.”
Dent said he’d expected the paramedic to examine James and ask questions. He’d even prepared a bag with James’ essentials to take along.
“But the paramedic said, ‘Mate, we’ve got two minutes to get him out. We’re low on fuel and we can’t muck around’. He took James’ passport and medical notes, slapped the harness on him, and the two of us helped him to the back of the boat. Then, poof!, he was gone. It was quite extraordinary.”
Within seconds the pair were in the helicopter and on their way to Whangārei Hospital.
Dent couldn’t praise the rescue crew or Maritime NZ enough.
“They were f****** amazing. Their courage and professionalism were just outstanding. When you see it on TV it’s exciting enough but to see it and experience it first-hand is exceptional. You realise then what they deal with and the complexity of what they do.”
Dent said one of the lessons from the experience was that anyone heading out to sea needed to be prepared for anything. Without the trauma kit and the Starlink receiver he believed James may not have survived.
However, even the best-prepared boaties needed help sometimes, and for that he was grateful to the Northland Rescue Helicopter crew.
James was now at home on Flinders Island, Tasmania, and recovering well.
Ironically, the veteran maritime operator was due to give a talk next month for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority about the many water rescues he had carried out in Bass Strait.
“Now he’s got a great story to finish on,” Dent said.
Paul Davis, the hoist operator and critical care paramedic that night, rated it among the top-three most challenging rescues of his career so far.
That was because of the range, which put a tight limit on how long the helicopter could stay on scene; the sea conditions, which were worse than forecast; the vessel’s movement; and limited night-time visibility.
“With all of those things combined it’s not a simple task to winch someone onto a vessel and then retrieve them and another person,” Davis said.
Once the crew arrived they went through several dummy runs to make sure the pilot could maintain a stable hover and good clearance above the vessel, and place a “rescue swimmer” at the right spot on board.
The Enchanter rescue, near North Cape in March last year, was even more difficult because it involved multiple patients and only pieces of debris as a target for the pilot.
The other crew members were captain Murray Plowright, co-pilot Joel Higgie and rescue medic Blake Murray.