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Battling poor visibility and heavy rain, the crew of the Spirit of Steve rescued four sailors from a sinking yacht 79 nautical miles alongshore. The mission covered a total of 158 nautical miles, showcasing the exceptional coordination between NSRI stations and emergency services.

In the annals of the NSRI, many rescues stand out for their complexity and the bravery displayed by the rescuers. However, the recent mission involving the rescue craft Spirit of Steve from NSRI Port Edward set a new benchmark for endurance and teamwork, marking the longest RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) rescue operation in NSRI history.

On the evening of May 24, 2024, at 19:38, the NSRI Port Edward duty crew was activated following a distress call from the Vasco da Gama Ocean Race 2024 coordinators. The sailing yacht Tipsy, returning to Durban from East London after completing the race, had collided with a container at sea and was taking on water. The crew of four—three men aged 69, 64, and 62, and a 61-year-old woman—were forced to abandon ship and take refuge in a life raft.

Station Commander Gert du Plessis received the call when the vessel was approximately 55 nautical miles away, just past Port St. Johns. The estimated round trip time was about six hours. However, the mission quickly became more challenging due to the conditions. At low tide and in darkness, the crew had to manually manoeuvre the Spirit of Steve over a sandbank, a process that added 25 minutes to their departure time. Each incoming wave helped them to push the boat forward a few metres until they reached the surf zone.

Once underway, the team faced relentless rain and poor visibility for 80% of their journey. At times, visibility was so poor that they could not see the bow of their vessel. Despite these conditions, the crew managed to navigate to their first GPS point, but finding the exact location of the life raft proved difficult due to a lack of updated position information.

The journey, initially estimated at 55 nautical miles, extended further south due to drift, totalling approximately 79 nautical miles. The crew had to rely on intermittent cell phone contact and flares to locate the life raft, which was eventually spotted about 300 metres off the rocks near Coffee Bay.

Despite the challenges, the NSRI Port Edward crew successfully located and rescued the Tipsy crew at 01:23. The four sailors, though cold and thirsty, were uninjured and in good spirits. The Spirit of Steve, refuelled mid-mission by the NSRI Shelly Beach rescue craft Spirit of Dawn, made the return journey to Port Edward, covering a total distance of approximately 158 nautical miles.

This operation, marked by the longest distance during a rescue ever covered by an NSRI RHIB, showcased the exceptional coordination and teamwork of the NSRI. The collaboration between NSRI stations, Telkom Maritime Radio Services, the Vasco da Gama race coordinators, and local emergency services was exemplary.

Station Commander du Plessis praised the efforts of all involved, stating, "The teamwork, from the crew on board to the shore crew, radio operators, and base controllers, made this a successful rescue. The swift response and cooperation between all services involved were commendable."

This historic rescue operation not only highlights the dedication and skill of the NSRI volunteers but also serves as a testament to the importance of preparation, teamwork, and communication in maritime rescue missions.

- Herman Eloff

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