Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Tough Times - 4 musings on events through my naval career.

WARNING.  Graphic Content

It's a given, in 27 years serving ones country you are bound to be called upon to undertake onerous tasks.  In those 27 years spanning 1975 to 2002 I served mainly in the Survey Navy, working all around the country, off shore islands, Pacific Islands, and Sub Antarctic Islands.  In that time the Navy and/or Police have been in many search and rescues (SAR's for short) and in varying climes. Essentially when south of  a line from Cape Egmont across to East Cape the water is so cold any person in the sea has a shorter life expectancy through Hypothermia.  Many cases south of those lines are non recoverable as bodies quickly lose buoyancy and sink to the sea floor.

To be fair too, possibly there is no chance of recovery due to sea creatures in the depths. I personally have been involved in many SAR's - sunken boats, crashed planes, missing divers and vehicles driving off wharves.  I won't go into all episodes but will dwell briefly on 4 that come to mind.

1. My First Floater (1977)

To clear the slate, my first dead person was when I was 13 and a lady in the phone box I was waiting at had a heart attack and passed before emergency services arrived, but my first "floater" (A deceased body that has resurfaced after 18 hours or so) was a bizarre one.  I was posted to a SML (Survey Motor Launch) and we had just sailed from Devonport Naval Base.  We'd fallen out of Specials adjacent the Masonic Hotel and were rigging for sea.  I was about to go change but the Coxn wanted someone on the bridge so I lit up a smoke and was leaning over the starboard Bridge wing and saw this mop floating in the water.  Another look I could see what looked like a Blue Kapok Jacket with air in it.  I shouted to the bridge staff and they too saw it and turned the vessel for a pick up.  Once we were alongside the corpse we scooped a tarpaulin under  it and dragged it onboard.  We alerted `Auckland Police and dropped the corpse off at Tamaki Boatyard where police were ready to receive it. Later transpired the corpse was a  foreign sailor missing for 2 days.

So what made this corpse different to the telephone box corpse?  Essentially the sea lice in this instance. All orifices (natural and manufactured) were teaming with them.

2.  Diver Down (1984)

In 1984, the Queen Street Riots occurred and all available police were called upon to attend the fracas.  I was on the Navy Liberty Boat Mahunga just berthed alongside Admiralty Steps. Just as we were debarking the Police Launch Deodar pulled up on the other side of the Steps and two officers asked us to look after the diver's body until the coroner arrived.  Ok nothing to worry about.  The corpse was under a tarpaulin and not going anywhere.  Until someone tried to push his flipper back under the tarpaulin and his hand came back up with it still in his hand and a detached foot.

Turns out he'd been snagged on a mooring chain for 3 weeks before being found.

3. Aid to Police - searching the Marlborough Sounds

It's not often a navy ship is called upon but in 1998 HMNZS's Wakakura and Kiwi were called in by Police to use their expertise in the search for evidence leading to a possible arrest.  Extensive search patterns in both areas of concern lead to a few small possibles but nothing concrete.

Although we never provided what the Police needed we all felt spiritually attached to finding any bodies so families had closure.  In that that didn't happen still weighs heavily particularly on mine.  I think too we all have to remember in these cases the ocean is a huge blanket that hides things very well, and we serve to do our best knowing it won't always be.

4. Where success is tempered with profound sadness. (1998)

One of my most rewarding events in my Navy Career was also tempered with the most soul destroying happening.

I was serving in the Mine Warfare until in HMNZS Philomel.  We'd all heard about the Cessna crashing into the sea outside Bluff and were expecting to be mobilised to do a search using HMNZS Moa's MCM equipment and the lads from HMNZS Toroa. We sailed practically on our arrival in Dunedin and overnighted to Bluff in calm seas.  On arrival we were given the search area.  I requested the witness accounts and found maybe the search area was a little outside the given zone.  However we sailed on a choppy col[d day (read sleet at sea level) with a Police presence and also TV One News crew (both spent more time feeding the fish).

Anyway, we did a cursory search over the designated area without joy, so I approached my Charlie Oscar and we agreed to search where I though the plane might be.  Unhappily nothing, so we returned to Bluff.  Once alongside the Toroa boys on the PC's thought they had found something on the last line for the day.  Further assessment showed a positive result and next morning we dropped straight onto it and marked it with a buoy for civvy divers and recovery barge to find it.  The plane was recovered.

That was a joy to be successful.  What sent me near tears was the father of one of the deceased, his son.  He saved his daughter by holding onto her, he was distraught he couldn't hold him as well.  We were in the MCM Ops Room reviewing data and he entered.  His first words - "can that thing find my son?" Very hard to tell him no, very hard.

So in essence, moments of my career were tinged with the special, different, scary, and sad.  Ka kite ano.

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