Port Kembla Water Police rescue

Lights, camera, real life action!

Playing lead in this action scenario is Sergeant Warwick Davidson from Port Kembla Water Police. “Poseidon must be real angry today, I don’t know what’s going on.” This from one of the valiant crew. If a Greek god is the villain today, who will be the hero?

“There are three boats requesting immediate assistance off Ulladulla!” The radio static emits an adrenaline pumped voice. As Sergeant Davidson gathers his crew and gallops through the start-up check, more information buzzes along the airwaves.

“It was an untidy sort of a day and quite surreal with more than one boat wallowing in the same area, needing help.” Warwick remembers. The principals in this story are the crew onboard a disabled trawler with mechanical and steering failure. They call the Water Police for assistance.

The Police fear the vessel will drift onto rocks and set course towards it. But before they can get there another vessel turns up to assist. The storm’s fury generates towering waves and tumbling seas. The eager crew manoeuvres alongside the disabled trawler and begins to tow.

The monster sea surges unrelentingly, until the tow snaps. The motor vessel attempting the rescue fouls her props in the towline, tossing them straight into the chaos and becoming the second victim in this drama.

The Police motor vessel Valiant battles south from Port Kembla. Six-metre seas pummel the boat for more than five hours. Forty-knot winds buffet Valiant and vertical waves create teeth rattling shudders through the vessel’s hull. She still manages to maintain 12 knots in the angry seas. The third boat in this story is a ketch in the same area. The water is claiming her mast and she struggles as the seas gather momentum.

An unknown vessel assists the unmasted ketch, freeing Warwick and his team to help the fi rst duo in distress. As seafarers can imagine, a sailboat with no mast has her dynamics eranged and morphs from a sleek seaworthy vessel into a helpless piece of flotsam.

In Port Eden a second Police boat, Fearless is deployed to help the disabled triplet and assist Sergeant Davidson and his team. Fortunately they are heading north and the prevailing conditions allow them to reach 26 knots. Like nautical actuaries, computing risks and linking probabilities via recorded facts and ocean knowledge, the Search and Rescue Control Centre (SARCC), on-shore coordinate the rescue. Liaising with the master’s, they are integral to the synchronization of the events.

One down (so to speak!), two to go. So far the ketch is in tow with a motor vessel into Jervis Bay. Port Eden Police (Fearless) are heading north for the trawler and Port Kembla Police (Warwick and team) are making way south for the motor vessel with the fouled prop.

Clouds envelop the sun and swell with rain. Nature’s orchestra tunes up – the beating swell and howling winds clash together in a violent crescendo. Sergeant Davidson’s crew reaches the towline across to the incapacitated boat.

“Towing a boat in 6m seas requires my mind to be vice-clamped on the job at hand. The line has to be judged long enough to handle the waves and motions of two heavy boats.” he explains. The towed vessel tips and spins. Her nose is up then plunges down. The black water swallows her hull. Valiant is built to deal with nature’s full force, but the conditions demand all her strength.

On the other front, the crew from the Eden Police face their own skirmish. They are trying to assist the disabled trawler. The seas conspire with the wind, lifting, tossing and dumping the boats in the trough between barricades of water. Struggling to keep their feet beneath them, the crew successfully pass a line to their ‘rescuee’. Hearts are still beating. They start the arduous tow back to firm
ground, where the grass simply bends and the water only ripples.

Now comes the twist. Approaching Ulladulla’s entrance, driving spray and white foam picks up and slams into the bows of the workhorse rescue boats. Blue, green and grey cresting waves reduce visibility and control. It is not over yet for Sergeant Davidson, his alert team and the trusty Valiant. “Six metre waves, each cracking with a fierce crest, were piling on top of each other.” Warwick remembers. As they approach Ulludulla’s east facing entrance the building waves thump abeam. They have little control over the vessel in tow.

Australia has a world-renowned search and rescue service that spans the nation and covers 52.8 million sq km of the Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans (more than one tenth of the earth’s surface!) The Australian Maritime Safety Authority is a largely self-funded government agency with a charter of enhancing efficiency in the delivery of safety and other services to the Australian maritime industry.

AusSAR’s (Australian Search and Rescue) coordination centre is staffed by Search and Rescue (SAR) specialists who have a naval, merchant marine, air force, civil aviation or police service background. Unlike some countries, Australia is fortunate to have the same boundaries for aviation and maritime search and rescue.

AusSAR will strengthen Australia’s already formidable international reputation in search and rescue. The new centre has a staff of about 60 and operates 24 hours a day utilising the latest satellite distress and communication equipment.

In NSW alone during 2005, search and rescue incidents totalled: 993 vessels assisted; 725 inshore, 268 offshore creating a workload of 39 per cent. Up until June 30, 2006, there were 443 inshore incidents and 305 offshore events, a total of 748. 

Calling on his years of training, Warwick makes the decision to turn back into the ocean. The motor vessel in tow has a line made fast from its stern to Valiant’s powerful bow. “We needed more control and a backup.” Warwick explains. They attempt the angry seas at the entrance. Then the second line explodes. The broken line grabs Valliant’s capstan and tears it from the deck, thumping the heavy equipment into the bow rail. Battling onwards Valiant and her team reach calmer waters.

“There is no margin for error whatsoever, with breaking waves and bomboras.” says Warwick. Their day is still not over. Ensuring their tow is secure on a wharf, they head back out to assist Fearless and her crew along the leads. Taking the stern of the boat in tow, Valiant acts as a drogue and the three boats are, at last, safely over the line. Finally, smooth mirrors and a peaceful breeze replace the screaming winds and violent whirlpools of water. The rescued trawler and motor vessel are safely in Ulladulla Harbour. A large gathering of the marine and fishing community welcome them in, confirming that the boating jungle drums are still alive and well. Remarkably, no one is seriously hurt. Aches, pains and colourful bruises are the limit of injuries.

It’s a different story for the boats. Valiant sustains damage to the value of $10,000. She needs repairs to her bowrail and anchor winch. Fearless suffers water damage to her radar dome (despite it being some 8m in the air). Later the rescue teams learn there was a massive 16m freak wave recorded off Jervis Bay. There but for the grace of God”.

This time there is a happy ending, and hopefully the next. The people in this story are not fictional characters. They are all living knights in shining armour. Their tasks are daunting, their job dangerous.

At times they depend on the volunteer patrols that give their precious time to help others. At other times they are asked to help rescue the rescuers.

This time all live to tell another tale and will no doubt to feature or take lead roles in the next escapade. Warwick and his team are somewhat embarrassed by my colourful prose and heroic depiction of their story. “We respect the sea.” says Warwick. “We are not heroes, we take this all in our stride and to be honest, it’s mostly quite easy with our knowledge and a fine vessel such as Valiant.” 

Words Jackie Parry