A Day That I Will Never Forget – Part Three

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
15 May 2020 11:49
A Day That I Will Never Forget – Part Three
RFNS Kula on its way to the aid of a distressed yacht early last year just outside of Suva Harbour. The vessel was decommissioned on December 21, 2019. The vessel served the Republic of Fiji Military Forces Naval Division for 25 years. Photo: RFMF Naval Division
  • 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

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 Three…

The rescue attempt

Our first attempt was to launch upwind, meaning that the ship was to be moving forward, heading into the wind (and waves) at around six to eight knots while the seaboat is launched.

This is an evolution that we set a record in whilst we were doing our work up in Australia before we sailed KULA to Fiji. The way this is tested is usually through a “man overboard” exercise.

The testing officer will throw Oscar into the sea whilst the ship is steaming at some speed, after which he will run into the bridge with a fake panic look on his face and blurts out “man overboard starboard side!” or port side depending on which side of the ship Oscar was thrown into the sea.

The officer who is on watch will immediately turn the ship to whatever side Oscar was in and do a few other standard turns and at the same time, someone in the bridge will sound the relevant alarms and announce via the PA System “Man overboard, man overboard, man overboard, man overboard starboard/port side, standby to recover by sea boat”.

This is when the stopwatch starts and will stop when the seaboat takes off. We would do this evolution in just two minutes and in no time Oscar is back safely on board. If you are getting worked up reading this bit, you should relax, Oscar is a dummy, not a real person!

Launching the seaboat has a few moves. First, the seaboat is winched up from its cradle and then swung out to the side of the ship, and then lowered to the sea and then the boat crew will get in and drive the seaboat away. It is an easy evolution when done in calm seas, but extremely dangerous when the sea is rough.

We were going to attempt this in conditions way beyond the safe working condition. We had no other better choice. The one thing that kept me going was my complete confidence in the ability of my crew. They were a seasoned bunch and very close buddies and at times like this, we were even closer, our hearts beating almost as one.

All hands attended to the launching of the seaboat except for Petty Officer Vasukiwai (our Radio Operator) who stayed with me on the bridge. I manoeuvred the ship upwind at eight knots and gave the okay to commence, but as soon as the seaboat was off the cradle it was sitting on, it became a fast-moving projectile as it began swinging back and forth uncontrollably at a fast pace even with the extra weight that the crew had exerted on it trying to keep it steady.

The ship was pitching at too sharp an angle because of the high waves, that it created a pendulum effect on the seaboat that was difficult to control and there was a great risk of it crashing into one of the crew or smashing someone overboard.

My attention was divided between three situations. I would watch the wave in front then quickly look back to the crew with the seaboat and then across to where the two girls were, just to confirm that the punt had not capsized. We exchanged signals with Sub-Lieutenant Kean and cancelled the evolution.

The seaboat was now back on the cradle safely and I turned the ship around. Now we had to try again but launching downwind in five to seven-metre swells. All this was done in full view of the young girl who was kneeling and it must have been demoralising for her to see us not being able to launch.

I steadied the ship, now downwind and we started the evolution again. This time the ship’s movement was not as bad, so the crew managed to hoist the seaboat off the cradle and swung the seaboat to the side of the ship ready to lower. Now the trick was all in the timing of lowering the seaboat to the crest of a wave and quickly disengaging the winch hook from the seaboat and let the seaboat drop with the wave…time it wrongly and the seaboat will free fall when the wave disappears from beneath it and the cable could snap causing injury to those in close range and a high chance that the boat will land awkwardly, the outboard engine could be damaged or even fall off or worse still, the seaboat could capsize.

Rigging around the seaboat

To fully understand this part of the story, let me first explain a few rigging around the seaboat.

Whenever KULA puts to sea, a rope about the size of your thump is always made ready on the Port side of the ship. One end is secured to a bollard from the bow and the rope is then run along the ship side towards the back and the other end is then secured on the railing near the position where the seaboat is lowered. On this end of the rope is a quick disengaging hook. On this hook is a small lever that when you pull, the hook is disengaged.

This rope is called the boat rope. Fixed onto the front end of the seaboat is the partner clip of this hook. When the seaboat is lowered, it will be swung outboard to the shipside, the boat rope is clipped on to the partner clip on the front end of the seaboat and then the seaboat is lowered to the sea. Fixed to the back of the seaboat is another small rope that is used to secure the stern and is used as a steading line when the seaboat is being lowered or hoisted. Once the boat crew are in they will start the engine, let go the stern rope, drive the seaboat forward and away from the ship, disengage the boat rope and attend to the task at hand. Remember this all done whilst the ship is steaming at around 8 to 10 knots.

Our boat rope is rigged differently, thanks to the ingenuity of Petty Officer Vodo. It is rigged in such a way that the boat rope is disengaged by pulling on a small rope that is tied to the lever and the rope is long enough for someone standing on the deck to disengage it. This pieces of seaboat equipment feature prominently in this next part.

Four situations

Now my attention was on four situations; watching that bow of the ship and the aspect of the wave in front, looking back to the situation with the launching crew, look across to where the two girls were, and now I had to pay attention also to the huge swells coming from behind the ship.

Credit to the launching team, the seaboat was safely lowered and now all that was left was for the boat crew to climb down the side of the ship via the Jacob’s Ladder (those rope ladders with wooden planks) into the seaboat and drive it away from the ship’s side.

Now all this is done while the ship is moving forward at some speed because, in addition to the engines, the ship is also being pushed forward by the huge swells from the back.

Yes, success, a wonderful feeling indeed given the unsuccessful attempt to launch upwind. Next second it was gone…disaster struck!

The seaboat was on the water and the two boat crew were scrambling to climb down the Jacob’s Ladder, but before they could even start, I felt from the flying bridge that the aspect of the bow to the surface was too steep which meant that the back end was higher than the front and as I looked back, a huge swell had caught up with us from the back, lifted the stern of KULA and the seaboat (that is hooked up to the boat rope and the steadying rope at the stern ) and pushed us forward at some speed.

To be continued…

Feedback:  rosi.doviverata@fijisun.com.fj

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