Gallantry at sea — rescuers held on for dear life as they raced to save fishermen

He saved the lives of three crewmen on a trawler that sank off Cape Recife in November 2015.

The crew of his rescue boat‚ as well as the air-sea rescue crew involved in the operation‚ were awarded chief executive officer’s letters of appreciation for helping to save the lives of 25 fishermen.

This is how events unfolded:

Jonathan Tufts looked out of his window as he took the call from Port Control. Rain was sheeting down‚ driven by a strong south-easter.

“A fishing vessel seems to be in trouble a couple of miles off Cape Recife. But it’s not too serious at this stage‚” the caller told the National Sea Rescue Institute’s Port Elizabeth duty coxswain. He added that her sister vessel was on the way to assist. Tufts thanked him and alerted his station commander‚ Ian Gray.

Fifteen minutes later‚ Port Control called back. “They now wanted us to respond‚” said Tufts. “They wanted us to go alongside at that stage‚ just to hold their hand.” It was just after 2pm on Thursday November 26‚ 2015.

As Tufts drove towards the rescue base his first thought was that they would not be able to respond. “There was about 45 knots of wind at my house and the rain was coming in sideways‚” he said. “If it is in the bay‚ we should be OK‚ but if not…”

Meanwhile‚ Gray‚ who was at work‚ was gathering as much information as he could. He had talked to Port Control and the skipper of the fishing vessel that he now knew was called the Baratz.

“The skipper was fairly calm about it‚” said Gray. “They did not know what the problem was at that stage‚ other than they had water rising in the bilges. And they could not stem it. They wanted pumps.”

Unfortunately‚ Port Elizabeth’s 10-metre search-and-rescue vessel‚ Spirit of Toft‚ was out of commission‚ which left the 7.3-metre Eikos Rescuer 4 to respond.

“The idea was to get out there and stand by her. Just in case. In the meantime a commercial vessel would run pumps out to her‚” said Gray.

At 3.25pm‚ Tufts turned the bow of Eikos Rescuer 4 out of the shelter of the harbour. The wind-driven rain lashed down and visibility was close to zero. The four crew — Marizaan Booysen‚ Mark Boyers and John Fletcher‚ with Tufts at the helm — held on for dear life as the search-and-rescue vessel hammered through 4- to 5-metre swells. The Baratz‚ they had been told‚ was now dead in the water about two miles off Cape Recife.

A private company‚ Xtreme Projects‚ offered to send its nine-metre cabin boat out with the pumps. Two of the Sea Rescue duty crew joined them.

“As they got out of the harbour they reported the sea to be uncomfortable‚” said Gray. “Before they left the shelter of the bay‚ and as they got closer to the casualty position‚ they said that the conditions were now on the edge of what their boat could handle.” Gray told them to hold their position. There was no point in landing up with two vessels in difficulty. “We could always send Eikos Rescuer 4 back to them to collect the pumps‚” said Gray‚ by now at Port Control with the port’s senior pilot. NSRI rescue swimmers had been sent to the Air Force’s 15 squadron and two helicopters were on standby.

Close to where he thought the Baratz to be‚ Tufts throttled back and almost miraculously the mist lifted slightly and the rain stopped. “Suddenly we saw her silhouette‚ and although the weather closed out again we were able to hold our course and a few minutes later we were alongside‚” said Tufts.

The Baratz’s sister ship‚ Helena Marie‚ had arrived and decided to try to tow the Baratz into the safety of the bay. But the tow line was wrapped around the stricken vessel and when they started to pull she went backwards. On the third attempt‚ things went badly wrong.

“I had just been on the radio telling Ian that everything was OK when a wave washed over her stern‚” said Fletcher. “Then a second wave and a third. The Baratz’s bow went up and the crew ran for their life rafts.”

Tufts keyed the mic again and told Gray the vessel was sinking. “Do what you do best‚” Gray replied before scrambling the two 15 Squadron helicopters and a harbour tug to help in what was fast becoming an extremely dangerous rescue.

As the Baratz was going down by the stern‚ the crew‚ all wearing lifejackets‚ started getting into two life rafts. “We moved to their stern so that we could watch that they safely got in‚” said Tufts. “That’s when the port-side life raft blew away and the guys jumped into the water.”

The first couple of men made the swim to the rescue craft‚ but for three. It was just too far. “There was a wreckage field all around us and the waves were massive. One after the other‚ feathering at the peak‚ they played havoc with the wreckage of the Baratz‚” said Tufts.

“John!” he shouted‚ “Go!”

Fletcher‚ the rescue swimmer in the crew‚ leapt into the water. Swimming hard for the man closest to the life raft‚ he grabbed his lifejacket and towed him through the ropes and buoys to safety. Then he headed back into the debris of the sinking fishing boat for the other two. The man closest to the sinking ship was his second target.

“His lifejacket was not done up properly‚” said Fletcher. “He was holding it closed with one hand‚ waving to me with the other. I picked him up about 10 metres from the vessel and there was that down-pull from the sinking ship. It was like a whirlpool.

“Swimming him back to the rescue boat was not easy. He must have weighed 150kg and was panicking. I literally had to swim him over the ropes.”

Waves crashed through the wreckage‚ threatening to trap the two men in a mass of coils and buoys. Booysen and Boyers‚ hanging over the stern of the rescue boat‚ desperately tried to keep the ropes away from the propellers.

Because of impossible sea conditions‚ sometimes rolling the tug Mkuzi to a dangerous 50 degrees‚ it was decided the only option to rescue the fishing crew would be to airlift them from the life rafts and rescue boat.

In an operation that lasted two hours‚ with Fletcher in the life raft helping air-sea rescue swimmers Kevin Warren and Gareth de Vry‚ all of the fishermen were safely lifted to the temporary landing zone made at the beachfront restaurant Something Good.

Rescuers had spent four hours at sea in epic conditions before all 25 fishermen were safely ashore.

“We were finished‚” said Fletcher. “I sat down in the boat-shed‚ physically drained.”

Said Gray: “I was really chuffed with them. It was an operation that included so many different organisations and it worked like a charm.”

— Ingram is the NSRI drowning prevention manager

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