Rescue swimmer honoured

2008-08-29 00:00

“I have to pay absolute homage to the flight crew. I appreciate how difficult it is to keep a helicopter in the air at the best of times, how quickly things can go wrong and how devastating it can be in a very short space of time.”

André Fletcher, the Durban-based rescue swimmer who received a silver Gallantry Award from the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) on Thursday, said the rescue of three yachtsmen in raging seas off Durban on June 19 was “all about team work”. This award is the highest given for bravery since 1998.

The strange thing, however, was that he had never flown with this team on a rescue mission before. Pilot Rhys Mason, co-pilot Douglas Nichols and flight engineer-cum-winchman Gerhan Coetzee were also recognised for their bravery at the same awards ceremony.

The entire rescue was over in 30 minutes. According to NSRI spokesman Craig Lambinon, the 10-metre yacht Eggnog was caught in a Force 7 gale with four-metre swells and heavy rain squalls just off Durban. Because conditions made a boat rescue impossible, it was decided to send the National Ports Authority helicopter to rescue the three-man crew.

By the time the helicopter found the yacht, it was dark and weather conditions had deteriorated.

Fletcher said that the Eggnog had been limping along the KZN coast with rigging problems and was unable to lower its sail. The terrible weather and the fact that the mast was pitching from side to side in the wind made it impossible to lift the crew off the yacht’s deck. They were instructed to jump overboard.

It took four lifts to pull the crew to safety. First time round, Fletcher swung to and fro and was even dunked into the heavy swells, but found no one had left the yacht. On his second attempt, he managed to scoop up the single yachtie who had been brave enough to jump.

In hindsight, he says he can understand why the sailors wanted to remain aboard. “They had to have faith that I would be there in the water with them and that I would be able to rescue them.”

Fletcher said all concerned were constantly aware of the danger.

“At any point, any of us could have said stop, this is not worth it. We were getting low on fuel and we knew [once we had completed the rescue] we would have been over-weight. But we carried on.”

He said it was not a Baywatch scenario, all the glitz and glamour. However, it was a significant and unusual rescue, mainly due to the terrible weather conditions.

Fletcher said only a small part of NSRI volunteers’ time is actually spent rescuing people. For every hour spent doing rescue work, 10 are spent training, washing boats or greasing winch cables.

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