24-hour sea vigil proves a lifesaver
By Louisa Cleave
A human lifeline reached out to sailors in peril in the middle of the South Pacific this week.

As ferocious seas battered the yachts, the crews' lives were in the hands of the Rescue Coordination Centre in Wellington.

Despite its workload, the centre had 100 per cent success: seven sailors rescued from four yachts in as many days.

The drama began last Saturday with the rescue of a solo Kiwi sailor about 450 nautical miles northeast of New Zealand. The man was picked up by a container vessel after he had to abandon his yacht, Gypsy Rose III, in bad weather.

The next day, an Italian man and his German partner were picked up after their yacht, Bird of Passage, was dismasted in storms south of Tonga.

Later that night, the centre picked up an emergency beacon signal from the Canadian-registered yacht Scot Free, with Gary and Lisa Blackwood on board.

The rescue was coordinated over two days, with Air Force Orions keeping watch on the disabled yacht as the container ship Capitaine Wallis made its way to the area, about 740km north of New Zealand.

During the Scot Free drama, an emergency signal from the yacht Ciru was picked up. It was located by an Orion at 1.15am on Tuesday.

The Swedish skipper and his New Zealand girlfriend were rescued that morning by the ship Baltimar Boreas.

The centre's workload can go from "nothing to full-on" in a few seconds, says general manager Chris Raley.

A minimum of two people are on duty at all times and contingency plans are in place to deal with multiple jobs.

The centre's 12 search-and-rescue officers work a roster system to cover an area stretching from south of the equator to the South Pole, and from about halfway between New Zealand and Australia to about midway between New Zealand and South America.

The centre was set up almost a year ago following a ministerial review, prompted by the sinking of fishing boat Time Out off Oamaru in 2003, recommended round-the-clock vigilance.

Since its launch last July, the centre has responded to 833 incidents.

It swings into action when a signal is picked up by satellite, providing an approximate location.

Finding the source of the signal can involve a number of organisations, from police to the defence force.

Rescuers may drop radios to communicate with the distressed party if they are not already in radio contact.

Mission controllers try to put themselves in the position of the people in trouble, said Mr Raley.

"I've been at sea many, many thousands of miles off coasts and I put myself back there and think, how would I feel?

"That is what the team does and that way they're able to empathise with the survivors and provide them with what they will be wanting and expecting."

Four days, four rescues

* Saturday: Solo Kiwi sailor abandons Gypsy Rose III in bad weather about 830km northeast of New Zealand. He is picked up by a container vessel.

* Sunday: Yacht Bird of Passage is demasted in storms south of Tonga. Couple rescued.

* Sunday night: Yacht Scot Free disabled about 740km north of New Zealand. During two-day rescue, Air Force Orions keep watch until container ship arrives.

* Tuesday: Orion locates yacht Ciru, whose Swedish skipper and his New Zealand girlfriend are rescued later that morning.