During Sea Rescue’s 44th AGM, held at the CTICC from 18h00 on Thursday 18 August 2011, NSRI volunteers from Witsand, Attie Gunter, Leon Pretorius and Quentin Diener were honored with Sea Rescue’s Gallantry Award Silver class. This is the highest award issued by NSRI since the award system was introduced in 1998.
The award citation says:
“Acting without thought for their own safety and concerned only for the welfare of the four persons in distress, the (Witsand) crew’s gallantry, skill and perseverance in the face of daunting odds that night was in the very best traditions of the National Sea Rescue Institute.”
Greg West, skipper of the capsized yacht, Gulliver, said:
”Those three young guys really did something above & beyond the call of duty. I am really pleased that they have been given this recognition. Please would you convey, again, our heartfelt gratitude for what they did for us.”
See the end of this release for the full story of the rescue of Greg West, Franz Sprung, Shaun Kennedy and Mike Morck, from their overturned yacht Gulliver, by the Witsand crew, as told in the magazine “Sea Rescue.”
NSRI media release : Embargo : 20h00, Thursday 18 August 2011.
Enquiries: Andrew Ingram 082 990 5977
Media: Pictures are available for download here and will be updated with the on-day award presentation pictures at 22h00.
Other awards made tonight are:
Station Efficiency Shield:
Station 7 East London
Operations Director’s Trophy for Most Improved Station:
Chairman’s Letter of Appreciation:
Gail Kelly & Jaco Visagie of Safmarine for transporting two rescue boats between cities in South Africa at no cost to the NSRI.
Alric Simpson Trophy:
(The Alric Simpson Floating Trophy is awarded annually to a person who or an organization which has rendered distinguished service to the N.S.R.I.)
Allan Cramb, for being an integral part of the NSRI for the past 44 years.
The Marmion Marsh Trophy:
(Recognises a person or an organisation for especially noteworthy service to the cause of sea rescue in South Africa over a number of years.)
For 2011 this trophy is awarded jointly to two persons. Ian Hamilton for his contribution over the past 40 years and Ian Strachan for his contribution for more than 40 years to the National Sea Rescue Institute.
Gallantry Award rescue story STARTS\\
Attie Gunter was in high spirits. The powerful twenty seven year old farmer had just returned from a magnificent holiday in Mozambique. The fishing was good, and although he was tired from the long drive he was excited to be back at his farm on the outskirts of Witsand, near the mouth of the Breede river.
He had put a call through to his deputy station commander and found that while he was away the station had been quiet. No call outs.
Settling in for the evening he had noticed a deterioration in the weather, but he had a lot to catch up on at the farm, so did not pay too much attention to it.
Until the call came from his flanking station at Still Bay.
An EPIRB ( Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon ) had been activated off Cape Infanta and Still Bay’s 7.3 metre rescue boat was out of commission. Could he please handle the call?
Without hesitation Attie agreed and the SMS message was sent out to his crew.
“MIS:NSRI Station 33 Call Out.”
Crewman Leon Pretorius, a young estate agent, was at home with his wife Hanli and their four year old son, Troi, when the call came though.
“He normally shouts ‘bye’ and is gone, but this time he said “ I love you. I really love you,” and gave Troi a kiss before he ran out,” said Hanli.
Down at the rescue base the crew gathered. As some started preparing the little 5.5 meter rescue boat Queenie Paine for an unusually long trip, Attie got on the phone to get as much information as he could before launching.
It seemed that the activated EPIRB could well belong to the 40 foot catamaran Gulliver, owned by Cape St Francis businessman Greg West. Earlier in the day Greg’s wife, Marcelle, had been unable to contact him on his cell phone and become sure that Gulliver was in trouble.
Marcelle started to make calls. She got hold of a Sea Rescue volunteer friend in Knysna and then Cape Town Radio. Through her perseverance, insisting that the EPIRB picked up by Cape Town Radio was from Gulliver, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Cape Town called out NSRI. The rescue bases at Agulhas, Sill Bay and Witsand were put on standby.
At 21h10 Witsand’s Queenie Paine was launched with Attie at the helm. His crew were Leon Pretorius and Quentin Diener.
The Breede river had been in flood. It was still running fast and high, and almost immediately the rescue boat hit a sandbank that had been moved by the flood. They worked their way around it and at the mouth of the Breede, they got out illumination flares.
The moon was blood red.
It was minutes before a total lunar eclipse as the first flare raced up into the sky. It started to drop and the next was fired. And another. And another. This way, as Attie chose his moment, there should be enough time to get through the 500 metre breaker line … before darkness enveloped them again. “ We still hit a wave,” said Attie, but they were through.
The eclipse was at its peak, and clouds closed in making it pitch dark. The wind was strong, but it was not too bad. The little rescue boat was cracking along at a good speed on course to the last position of the EPIRB.
And then they left the shelter of Cape Infanta … and all hell broke loose. The waves were huge. They were breaking in all directions, and running with the wind behind them, the rescue boat smashed into breaking wave after breaking wave and the spray was blow from behind straight past them.
“It was crazy,” said Leon, who was radio operator on the call. “We were doing around 35 km/h so the wind must have been at least 60km/h.” Leon got hold of Cape Town Radio and found out that the weather was deteriorating fast. The swell had gone from 5 to 8 metres.
As Attie opened the throttles again, the rescue crew struggled to see through the spray. He turned the nose of the rescue boat onto the new bearing that the MRCC had provided for the latest EPIRB position. The advice that the crew had, was to get to the position, fire one flare and if there was no response … turn around.
It was simply too dangerous for the small rescue boat alone in those conditions.
By this time Sea Rescue operations manager, Mark Hughes, was in his office watching the rescue boat track on his computer. It had become obvious that this was an extremely dangerous mission. The Altec Netstar tracker installed in the rescue boat was proving to be invaluable … and all the way up the coast senior NSRI men were holding their breath as the rescue boat’s bread crumb line tracked towards the position of the beacon.
Queenie Paine reached the point that they hoped to find Gulliver. The sea was was whipped into a fury and the crew had to shout to hear each other above the wind.
There was no yacht.
Leon reached for an emergency red flare, pulled the trigger, and it exploded 1000 ft above them, casting an eerie red glow over the white capped waves. And then it was whipped away and extinguished by the wind.
Attie wiped salt out of his eyes. He thought that he had seen a light in the distance.
Then the other two saw it.
They had no idea how far it was, but it was the last chance.
At 22h33 Leon depressed the mic on Queenie Paine’s VHF radio, “ Cape Town Radio, Cape Town Radio, Cape Town Radio this is Rescue 33, Rescue 33, Rescue 33 … We have the yacht in sight. Over”
Attie guided the Queenie Paine up to the overturned hull of Gulliver and saw that all four crew were in the life raft which was tied to the hull of the catamaran.
“ Are you guys ok?” he called.
Communications had again been lost and the shore controllers at Witsand watched the bread crumb track of the rescue boat drifting at 2 km/h, not knowing if the rescue boat had now also been capsized or if they were taking a long time to transfer the survivors.
“ It was very difficult to transfer them into our boat. The one guy could not stand and they were all in different stages of Hypothermia,” said Attie.
As Greg West, Gulliver’s skipper, came onto the rescue boat Attie turned around and apologized for coming in such a small boat.
“ Ill take it,” said Greg.
Fifteen minutes after coming alongside the life raft the four men had been safely transferred into the rescue boat. Waves had been breaking over the pontoons and the now heavily laden rescue boat was in grave danger of capsizing herself. There was no time to try and get the yachtsmen into foul weather gear. Leon had given one man his jacket and Attie stopped Quinton from taking his off.
“ The wind was ‘verskriklik hard’. I don’t think that I will be able to explain it to anyone. Its water from all sides. We just told them to hold tight, and I said ‘ we will try and get you home,’said Attie.
“ We began to panic because when we tried to pull away nothing happened.”
After what seemed like ages the engines forced the hull out of the water … and the wet-deck started to drain.
Leon had managed to get Cape Town Radio again. Before communications were once again lost, he had given them their position and said they were on their way back to base.
As the boat crashed over a wave Leon dropped the radio and Atties hand smashed off the throttles.
“I thought ‘Oh no’ I’ve broken the throttle levers,” said Attie, not realizing in the chaos that it was only the dropped radio.
At Leon’s home in Witsand little Troi was thrashing about in his bed. “It was strange. Unlike him,” said Hanli. At about eleven o clock Troi was talking in his sleep and tossing and turning. Hanli could not quieten him down.
The rescue boat that his father was on, with the four survivors, was in the worst weather that any of them had ever experienced.
Quinten was put in the bow to try and prevent the boat from flipping and the yachtsmen were moved as far forward as they could get. The rescue boat climbed up a wave, smashed through the top and the engines screamed as they left the water. And the boat fell into the trough. Again. And again.
Attie’s head smashed into the consul for the umpteenth time. It was impossible to tell when the boat would hit the trough. “I was very grateful for my helmet,” said Attie.
Conditions were so bad that Attie could not see his rev counter. Leon did that. Attie fixed his concentration on the GPS and tried to gauge the sea.
It was simply not possible to do more.
“It was a scary night. I did not think that we would make it. I remembered that I had not said goodbye to my girlfriend Karen. And thought about Leon and Quinten’s families.
Leon had done some fuel calculations in his head and realized that they could not make it back.
“ Daar was geen manier.”
With 25 kilos to go before getting back Attie throttled back enough for Leon to put a desperate message through.
“ Please send assistance. We are not going to make it.”
Communications were so bad that it was not clear why they needed help, but the response was instant. Cape Town Radio repeated the message and the 8.5 meter Vodacom Rescuer VII was scrambled from Agulhas as well as a crew from Still Bay who responded via road.
“According to our GPS they were 40 miles from us. In those conditions it would take us more than two hours to get there,” said Agulhas station commander Reinard Geldenhuys.
The tension in Witsand rescue base was palpable.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, conditions were getting better for the little rescue boat.
They were working their way into the lee of Cape Infanta.
In the distance the crew could see lights of a trawler.
“ We had hope again,” said Leon.
“ We could talk again. We could hear each other. And seven kilos from the base we got ‘comms’ again. And we were able to refuel.”
“It was fantastic to hear that Agulhas was on the water. That there was someone on the way for us,” said Attie.
Although Agulhas’s Vodacom rescuer VII throttled back, they kept on course … until they had confirmation that Queenie Paine was safely through the bar.
And then they turned around.
The adrenaline filled trip that had taken the big 8.5 metre rescue boat an hour, on the return trip took them two and a half hours to fight their way through the maelstrom.
As the Queenie Paine’s nose touched the slipway Attie felt warm tears of relief running down his cheeks.
“I think that we were very lucky. I still don’t know how we got back. But … ya… It was just luck. If anything else had have happened it would have been … over … engine failure …
“ I don’t know how many angels we had on that boat, but they had their hands full. It was scary.”
“ Mama …” called Troi. It was one in the morning. “ I took him to the toilet and when we got back to his bed he fell fast asleep. It was like he knew that Leon was safe…” said Hanli.
There is no doubt that the lives of Greg West, Franz Sprung, Shaun Kennedy and Mike Morck were saved by the bravery of Sea Rescue volunteers Attie Gunter, Leon Pretorius and Quentin Diener.
* A special thank you to Chrystal Towers Hotel and Spa for hosting Attie, Leon, Quentin and their partners on the awards evening.