A Day That I Will Never Forget – Part Two

‘One of the girls was lying flat on her back, half-submerged in the water-filled punt and the other one was kneeling over her and shaking her and pointing to us.’
14 May 2020 10:00
A Day That I Will Never Forget – Part Two
The RFNS Kula.
  • Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto is the Commander Republic of the Fiji Military Forces. The events he recounts here occurred when he was the Commanding Officer of the RFNS Kula.
    This is the continuation of the search and rescue operation

I reproduce below a search and rescue story that I penned many years back that did not make it to the dailies then. I retell this story in the hope that someone will know the two girls and let me know how they are, better still perhaps a chance to meet them again. I reproduce it exactly the way I wrote it then. Here is Part Two…

Suspenseful events

The silence on the radio was to me almost unbearable… and then my heart jumped as the radio came alive..”Kula this is Guardian over” and all of a sudden everyone on the flying bridge hushed as we all tuned in to the French accent that was coming over the radio.

My rather cold ears were so tuned in to the noise coming out of the speaker that I could even pick up the breathing of the person who was on the other end of the radio. I immediately looked up to where the Guardian was, looking for a sign, and the sign was for the plane to circle where it was, because that would indicate that they had sighted something.

I remembered looking at the plane and silently saying to myself…”please turn, please turn!” And then the overwhelming relief and hope as I watched it banked and started to circle! Yes they have found something, and now the fears that kept me awake all night was back..”oh no we’ve hit them…Lord please save them”

My worst fear was for a sighting of a body in the water because I knew that if they were indeed dead in the water, I will never know if it was the huge waves that swamped their punt or it was us that had caused their death.

If that was the case, I would blame myself forever for their death.

Then finally…

But it was good news that was coming over the radio via that wonderful French accent…they had found a punt with two persons on board! But the Guardian can only confirm that one was alive but cannot confirm if the second person was.

The good news from the Guardian was greeted with cheers and clapping on the flying bridge. I could almost touch the exuberance that just sort of oozed out of the bright and smiling faces of my crew – a sight that any ship captain would savour for a long time.

The Guardian then started a manoeuvre to guide us to the punt, and the way it did, was to fly low over us and you would hear the pilot saying over the radio as it was approaching us “Kula this is Guardian, over you now…now, and now” as it was directly above us ..” your new course is ___” which was a three-figure compass direction like “two-three eight”.

We would respond by immediately turning and steering that course. The weather was getting worse and it was really frustrating as it was slowing us down. Kula was really tested on that day, as it ploughed into and through these huge waves at top speed. It must have been a sight to see from the Guardian crew above.

The plane would fly on ahead, and as it reached the position of the punt, it would circle to indicate to us the approximate position.

We repeated this manoeuvre a few more times before they reported to us that the punt was just one hundred meters ahead.

Because of the very rough seas and the consequent high waves, we could not see the punt, and this we reported to the Guardian. The pilot then informed us that they will fly low over us and drop a dye marker near the punt.

This they did, they flew really low and I could clearly see the approximately three feet canister as it jettisoned from the belly of the aircraft into the rolling waves ahead. This was the first time for me to see a dye marker used in such a way and I had no idea what to expect.

Sighting the target

But as Kula reached the crest of a big wave I could, for a few seconds, see fluorescent green colour on the sea surface ahead, and Kula would then drop to the bottom of the wave and we would lose sight of the fluorescent green, and then up again, see it, and down, lose it. But it was enough to guide us to the punt.  Eventually, we had the first glimpse of our target.

The sight of these two girls on a tiny wooden punt, half-filled with water, surrounded by fluorescent green, against the backdrop of huge waves threatening to swamp them, is a sight that I will never forget.

One of the girls was lying flat on her back, half-submerged in the water-filled punt and the other one was kneeling over her and shaking her and pointing to us.

The one kneeling had a white jacket and the hood was over her head. I can only guess and hope that her sister was alive and that she was encouraging her sister to be strong as help has arrived.

I remembered that as we approached them, the chattering and cheering that flavoured the atmosphere on the flying bridge, all of a sudden disappeared, replaced by just silence.. and for most, if not all of us, tears to our eyes.

You could not help but feel the ordeal that these two young girls were going through.

The message from the Guardian earlier that they were not sure if the other one was alive now made sense to me, as they must have seen the same picture of the sister lying on her back from the air. Now the first part of a Search and Rescue mission was done – the Search. Now we had to attempt the second part – the Rescue, but the weather was not on our side.

The rescue

I could not position Kula close enough to the punt to execute the rescue, as there was a high risk of the punt getting smashed against the side of the ship. The only way we could rescue the two girls was to launch our own seaboat, transfer the girls into the seaboat and then hoist them onboard Kula.

The problem though was that the sea state was way beyond the safe working conditions of launching the seaboat.

As I was contemplating this risky and dangerous situation, my eyes were on this tiny water-filled punt with the two girls, one still on her back and the other kneeling over her, as if she was trying to wake her up and constantly pointing towards us.

As I watched, a big wave would pick them up and as it pushed them forward the punt will begin to tilt to a point of almost just flipping over and capsizing and for some reason, that is beyond me, (and thank you Lord for that reason!) the punt, at the very last second, would then slide down to the bottom of the wave and sit upright again. And that scene would happen over and over again as we attempted the rescue.

I knew that the girls had no energy to swim and should the punt capsize, the two girls would not survive. To lose them now was just unthinkable, to say the least.

We’ve found them and they were alive despite the atrocious weather conditions…we must rescue them and fast before either the punt capsized or the sister that was lying down dying on us.

After discussions with the Executive Officer (Sub-Lieutenant Kean) and the Chief Bosun (Petty Officer Vodo who now resides in the US and working as a Reservist with the US Navy), I called all hands on deck and briefed them emphasizing safety and allocated tasks. Adrenaline was pumping, no doubt, and I could see in the reaction of the crew sheer determination. This was what we had sworn an oath to do, to serve others regardless, only this time it was to save two lives in the most difficult of circumstances.

To be continued…


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