Textbook rescue off cape

Three crew left the San Rochelle burning out of control early yesterday. Picture / RNZAF

Three crew who abandoned their blazing fishing boat off Cape Reinga early yesterday escaped with little more than smoke inhalation.

"That soon cleared sitting in a liferaft in the fresh air," Aucklander John Alexander, owner-skipper of the San Rochelle, said after he and his two crewmen were picked up in a textbook helicopter rescue and flown to Te Paki, near Cape Reinga.

After more than five hours in the liferaft, Mr Alexander, Kenneth Shone, 23, from Wakefield, near Nelson, and 32-year-old Scottish traveller Stewart Robertson were all unhurt.

They were deposited safely at the Department of Conservation field headquarters at Te Paki where they were looked after by DoC staff and Houhora Senior Constable Chris Yarnton.

Mr Robertson had been in New Zealand for barely two weeks before signing on for his first trip on the San Rochelle, which left Auckland to sail north on Sunday.

Mr Alexander said he had no idea what started the fire in the engine room of the 18m tuna boat at 4am yesterday about 185km north-west of Cape Reinga.

"It was pretty horrific. It just got away on us. We followed all the right procedures to restrict fuel, heat and air but it didn't make any difference.

"We couldn't control it," he said.

The men sent out a mayday call. The two crewmen got into the liferaft and used a tether line to secure it to the San Rochelle.

Mr Alexander said intense heat drove him off the steel boat about 5am.

"By 8am the Orion was over us and by 10.30, it was the chopper.

"Conditions were fair and there were no dramas in the rescue."

The San Rochelle's mayday call was cut short, but enough was picked up by the Wellington-based Rescue Co-ordination Centre to despatch an RNZAF Orion.

After the liferaft was sighted, Auckland's Westpac Rescue Helicopter was sent to rescue the men.

Advanced paramedic Jock Stewart, who was lowered about 12m on to the liferaft, said lifting the crew was straightforward.

"Bang, wallop and straight up three times.

"They were cold and wet but otherwise okay.

" The sea state and weather were good for us but those guys in the raft did everything right."

He said they set off locator beacons, had lifejackets and a dinghy attached to the liferaft.

"You can't ask for much more than that," Mr Stewart said.

The rescue took about 15 minutes.

The three rescued men had lost all their belongings aboard the boat, which included money and a passport in the case of Mr Robertson.

"He hasn't got any more than what he's standing up in now," Mr Stewart said.

Senior Constable Yarnton praised the Te Paki DoC staff for their help and said the San Rochelle crew had done "all the right things". He said the fishing boat was last seen drifting with smoke billowing from it and its steel plates glowing red hot. It was later reported to be taking on water.

Mr Alexander, 49, of Mt Eden, who holds a deepsea master's ticket and has 30 years' experience in the fishing industry, said he would try to arrange a salvage operation for his boat.

That would involve putting the fire out, and towing it probably to the port of Whangarei, where it would be hauled on to a slip.

Earlier, the Maritime Safety Authority issued a warning to shipping that the San Rochelle was drifting, abandoned and on fire.

A spokeswoman for the authority said the rescue had been "fantastic" and showed what could be done when boats in trouble had good communications, liferafts and safety equipment.