NZ Sailor Shipwrecked in Pacific Thanks NZDF Rescuers

28 March 2019

A Warkworth sailor who was rescued in the Pacific Ocean in November 2017 has met New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel involved in the successful search and rescue mission to thank them.

“All I want to say is a big thank you to the NZDF – an excellent job done. I’d like to apologise that it has taken me so long to make the connection,” experienced yachtsman Phil van der Mespel said.

Accompanied by his wife Jenny and their son Joel, Mr van der Mespel met personnel from the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s No.40 and No.5 Squadrons yesterday to express his gratitude.

The sailor was battling stormy conditions about 650 kilometres northwest of New Zealand on his way home from Vanuatu when his boat Waimanu’s mast broke about 4am on 18 November, 2017. One of the support blocks for the mast was catapulted out of the boat, ripping a large hole in the deck.

Buffeted by 40-knot winds and five- to six-metre swells, Waimanu, which had been with Mr van der Mespel’s family for 43 years, began to take on water.

Initially he thought he could pump the water out but the boat was filling up too fast, so after making three mayday calls on his VHF and firing three parachute flares, he got ready to abandon Waimanu.

“I winched the life raft right next to the boat and tossed in everything I needed – grab bag, food, bottles of water, first aid kit, clothes, duvet, and a satchel containing my passport, wallet and ship’s papers. I was expecting to be in the raft for three or four days.

“The deck of Waimanu was a foot or so above the sea when I stepped off the stricken yacht and into the life raft. As soon as I got the life raft ready, I activated my emergency radio beacon.

“And as soon as I had cut the raft free of the sinking yacht I turned around to take a photo of the boat in her last moments but she was gone.”

In New Zealand, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand picked up the distress call and sent a search and rescue request to the NZDF about 7am.

A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules, with a crew comprising personnel from No.40 and No.5 Squadrons, left Auckland about 9am.

With up-to-date information on Mr van der Mespel’s location from Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand, the crew found the yachtsman within a few minutes of arriving on-scene at 10:46am.

“I thought it was another crashing wave but when I peered out I saw the Hercules flying right over my raft,” Mr van der Mespel said.

“When you are floating around in the sea hundreds of miles from anywhere, to see an aircraft come for your rescue is the most reassuring thing in the world.”

After reporting the good news to Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand, the crew then contacted the nearest ship, commercial vessel MV Norfolk Guardian, to arrange Mr van der Mespel’s rescue and dropped a smoke flare to help it locate him.

The Hercules remained at the scene until he was safely on the rescue vessel about 2:30pm.

Squadron Leader Brad Scott, the aircraft captain of the Hercules, said meeting Mr van der Mespel was a special experience for the crew.

“It’s very rare for the team to have any further contact with the various people we assist,” he said.

“We feel valued and rewarded just by completing the job. The largest satisfaction comes from helping those in need, particularly when someone’s life is in danger."

This page was last reviewed on 28 March 2019.