Feature

A Day That I Will Never Forget – Finale

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
19 May 2020 11:33
A Day That I Will Never Forget – Finale
Republic of Fiji Military Forces Commander, Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto.

The seaboat, being the lighter of the two, bore the full brunt of this swell as it was thrown forward with great force that it tore itself away from the ship, snapping the steadying line and was spinning sideways and the momentum hurtling it back towards the side of the ship.

My immediate reaction was to push the throttle and increase speed and allow the boat rope (which was still attached) to then pull the bow of the seaboat to stop the spin but I realised that we were dipping into the bottom of a big swell in front. Had I made that move, the end result could have been disastrous as it meant that KULA would now be faster then the speed of the wave and the front end will be jammed into the bottom of the front swell and the swell that is pushing us from the back could push the stern sideways and the ship will broach.

Broaching is a situation where a ship is caught in between two big waves and the back wave rolls the ship over. It was a fifty-fifty chance that we could have made it but I hesitated and looked back. Petty Officer Vodo must have read my mind and he pulled on that rope that disengaged the hook.  The boat rope from the seaboat allowed the seaboat to drift away from KULA. Had Petty Officer Vodo not done that, the seaboat could have smashed into the ship and capsize and then pulled under the ship into the spinning propellers.

The end result of these spur of the moment decisions was that our means of rescue was now also drifting in that rough sea, upright with the outboard engine still but with no crew. This again was done in full view of the kneeling girl and in close proximity. My immediate worry was that they might attempt to leave their punt and try and swim to the drifting seaboat, and that would definitely result in their demise.  We had to act fast! I increased speed as we turned back towards the drifting seaboat, my eyes on the two girls hoping that they will not attempt to swim. We steamed close enough to the two girls and via the loud hailer told them to stay put and that we will rescue them.

We had to now somehow get a crew on to that drifting seaboat and the only way was to swim to it. Everyone knew what was next and before anyone could speak, Petty Officer Vodo and Petty Officer Rokovino (our Electrician) just said in no uncertain terms that they would do it and suited up.

They had flotation vests on and signalled that they were ready. I had to now manoeuvre the ship to keep the seaboat upwind and drop the two Petty Officers downwind but close enough and allow the seaboat to drift towards them. The two will only be allowed into the water when the engines are stopped, a term we refer to as “Red Props” meaning you are not allowed to engage the engines either forward or astern until “Green Props” is declared.

The RFNS Kula heads out on the Suva Harbour.  Photo: RFMF Naval Division

The RFNS Kula heads out on the Suva Harbour. Photo: RFMF Naval Division

In calm seas, this manoeuvre is easy; you would drive the ship to where you want it and make sure the ship is stationary before you declare “Red Props” and then you would hear the order “Swimmer into the water “ the person who is in charge will tap the swimmer on the shoulder and he will just step off the deck and drop into the sea feet first. That’s the way it is done, but we were operating in conditions where it was NOT supposed to be done!

So I had to find a way to do this safely and it was definitely going to be different. The risk that I had to manage was around the two getting smashed back against the ship or worse still trapped under the ship after they jumped because of the rough seas. I quickly rehearsed a plan in my mind a few times and then shared it with the two, Vodo and Rokovino, and they indicated they understood.

The plan was to steam at some speed downwind from the seaboat where I will pass it at a distance of approximately 10 metres, the point where the two will be dropped, but the ship will declare “Red Props” before the drop point and have enough momentum forward to reach and pass the drop point.

This way the two will enter the water when the propellers are not spinning and by the time they hit the water, the ship would pass them, to save them from getting smashed into or trapped under it. To put simply, they had to jump from a moving ship with propellers not spinning.  All through-out, the ship is steaming around at 10 knots just to control the movement of the ship. Everyone is holding on to some strong point just to keep from being thrown around and we were all soaking wet from the rain and the sea spray.

I commenced the manoeuvre, increased speed and turned the ship towards the drop point, and hoped that the little plan that I rehearsed would work. The two were waiting for a thumbs-up signal from me to indicate Red Props and that it was safe for them to jump.

As the bow reached the drop point I stopped the engine and yelled “On the bridge “Red Props” thumbs up and the two disappeared over the side and then the anxious few seconds as I looked towards the stern waiting to see their heads pop back up to the surface and we should have passed them also.

Then “one, and two”, yes both heads above the surface and raising their hands to signal that they were ok and they started swimming towards the seaboat. That little plan worked. That wonderful feeling of success was back again so I gave the orders “On the bridge Green Props” and turned the ship around to position it upwind from the punt to afford some shelter from the waves.

As the two swam towards the drifting seaboat, I saw for the first time the second girl sitting up and both of them were bailing the water out from their little wooden punt with their hands, almost just like splashing the water out of the punt. I can only guess that the sight of the two sailors swimming to the seaboat gave the two sisters hope, and now they had the strength to start bailing and keep the punt afloat long enough for the seaboat to arrive and rescue them.

We could see the Island of Moala clearly at this stage and it provided a good reference point as to where we were without looking at the chart or the radar.

I saw the two Petty Officers climb into the seaboat and then I could see the smoke coming out of the outboard as it started and the seaboat turning to the drifting punt and negotiating the big waves as it sped towards the now waving girls. I maneuvered KULA much closer now just to witness the transfer and just to keep them in sight.

My thoughts were now on how to get the two girls and the two Petty Officers for that matter onboard, given what had happened to the seaboat when we launched.

I decided on a plan where we were going to attempt to hoist the two girls on board and at the earliest sign of trouble, we would abandon, and try and pass some foul weather gear (raincoat and trousers) to the seaboat just to keep the girls warm and then escort the seaboat closer to Moala and attempt the recovery there, hopefully in better weather conditions.

I watched the seaboat inch closer to the drifting punt and they quickly grabbed the girls and hauled them into the seaboat. It was one of those moments again…good feeling… “Thank you, Lord”.

The crew broke out into cheers and clapping. The two girls were much safer now in the hands of Petty Officers Vodo and Rokovino in our seaboat, which was a semi-rigid inflatable (aluminium hull with inflatable rubber tubing around). Now that the two girls were safely in our seaboat, we discussed with the launching crew the recovery moves and we prepared accordingly.

Sitting (from left): Viliame Naupoto, Timoci Koroi, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, Sitiveni Rabuka, Voreqe Bainimarama, Peter Kraus and Francis Kean.

Sitting (from left): Viliame Naupoto, Timoci Koroi, Ratu Epeli Ganilau, Sitiveni Rabuka, Voreqe Bainimarama, Peter Kraus and Francis Kean.

The foul weather gear was brought on deck ready and the crew rehearsed the sequence of recovery. I did a few turns just to find out the best angle to the wave that afforded the least pitching and rolling motion on the ship, noted the compass reading and we steered that course and signalled to the seaboat to come alongside.

The girls were going to be recovered via a helicopter strop and hoisted onboard using our boat crane. The seaboat would drive up to the ship, hook up to the boat rope, slow down and allow the boat rope to take the weight of the seaboat and then put the outboard engine on reverse and keep it that way just in case another big wave catches us unexpectedly from the back.

The helicopter strop was already lowered to the surface but it was held up by hand and will be hand-lowered as the seaboat was secured alongside. This way you have control of the metal weight at the end of the cable, to prevent it from getting smashed into someone, and also allows some freedom to lower or pull it up by hand to match the rising and falling of the seaboat as it rides the waves. The crew had learned the lessons from the seaboat launch and so did I. On my part I had to watch more closely the wave from the stern (back).

I steered the ship in a direction to keep the wave coming towards us from either the starboard or the port quarter (back right or back left) and not directly behind. WO Ravuravu Turaga (our Charge Engineer) was on the throttle, PO Vasukiwai on the wheel and the rest led by Sub-lieutenant Kean and WO Jitoko at the launching area as the boat recovery crew. On the seaboat was PO Vodo and Rokovino with the two girls. The signal was given for the seaboat to approach and we commenced the recovery as per the first plan.

The seaboat approached, and successfully hooked up to the boat rope and slowed down, allowing the boat rope to take the weight of the seaboat. The steadying rope was secured and the outboard engine was engaged astern and helped keep the seaboat against the ship.

WO Ravuravu, the Charge Engineer, coped very well with the fast engine orders from me.

An example of my orders to him could be “Revolutions ten hundred” and then the next second it would be “Stop both engines” and then immediately after “Slow astern both engines” and then “stop both engines, slow ahead both engines” and so on.

What we were doing was adjusting the speed to ensure that we were riding with the wave comfortably, trying to match the speed of the wave as close as we could.

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

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

Rescuing the girls

The cable with the helicopter strop was lowered by hand and we attempted to hoist the first of the two sisters. This was the older of the two (18-year-old) and the one who was lying flat on her back and obviously the weaker of the two.

As they were strapping her in with the helicopter strop, the seaboat dipped with a passing swell and this girl all of a sudden was swinging in midair, and to make matters worse, the helicopter strop had hooked her the wrong way. The strop was around her chest and under her arms instead of around her back and under her arms.

We hoisted her nevertheless because she was going to be slammed against the ship side and the seaboat was on its way up and was going to hit her from the bottom. As soon as she was hoisted above the railing, the crew literally wrapped themselves around her to cushion her against the side of the ship’s superstructure.

She was successfully lowered to the deck, wrapped in a blanket and carried into the ship and laid on a prepared bunk (bed) in the non-crew cabin.

The second girl, the younger (15-year-old) who was a little stronger was strapped correctly and the same procedure was repeated successfully and carried inside and laid on the second bed.

RFMF Naval division personnel onboard the RFNS Kula when it was decommissioned in December last year.  Photo: RFMF Media Cell

RFMF Naval division personnel onboard the RFNS Kula when it was decommissioned in December last year. Photo: RFMF Media Cell

Teamwork

It was just sheer strength and determination from the crew that ensured the safe transfer of the two sisters from the seaboat onto KULA. From the flying bridge, I could hear the crew cheering and shouting in jubilation. My reaction was a “THANK YOU LORD “ and then the loudest “YES!!” I have ever shouted in my life.

We then recovered the two Petty Officers and our seaboat with just one hoist. The two jumping off the seaboat as soon as it reached deck level.

The Guardian was so accurate when dropping the dye marker as it was drifting right beside the punt, so Petty Officer Vodo recovered it as well.

(This was returned to the Guardian during one of its later surveillance flight trips to Fiji.)

The two girls were attended to by our medic, Veresoni, and we gave the two sisters some of our clothes to change into and some blankets to warm them up quickly and allowed them to rest for a while. These two sisters had been adrift in that small punt in very rough seas with nothing over their head for approximately 52 hours.

After some needed sleep, they gained enough strength and had a hot shower. After a cup of warm KULA Milo, they were well on their way to full recovery.

I later came down from the bridge and knocked on their door, and there we met face to face for the first time.

Tears

I introduced myself and we shook hands and kissed them on their forehead as I would do to my daughter. They did not say much but just stood there, heads bowed with tears streaming down their faces. That brought tears to my eyes also as it felt as if I had just saved the lives of my own children.

I felt their thankful heart, through their tears saying… “Vinaka Vakalevu”

RFNS KULA carries the Motto “Semper Primus” or “Always First”, a mine-sweeping theme inherited from her decommissioned namesake, which was an ex-US Navy Coastal Minesweeper. On this day, the young KULA was on her first operational task, first search and rescue mission and she had just completed her first successful rescue. She had lived up to her Motto!!

As we were steaming back to Suva, I came down and joined the two sisters for a cup of Milo at the mess deck. Out of curiosity, I asked them if they had seen the lights from the ship the night before. Their answer sent shivers down my spine and still do today whenever I think about it. Their answer was… “Three times we could touch the ship”!

The invisible loving hands of God was definitely around those two sisters that night!

As I watched the ambulance drive out of the Naval Base with the two girls waving goodbye from inside, I knew, that like time and tide, one of the best moments of my naval career had just passed, never to return, but I also knew that the memories will remain with me for the rest of my life.

  • This story is a tribute to the hard work, dedication and comradeship of that RFNS KULA delivery crew that I was so privileged and honoured to have served with; as their Commanding Officer. “SEMPER PRIMUS” “ALWAYS FIRST”!

Feedback:  rosi.doviverata@fijisun.com.fj

 



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