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Great Barrier rescue among Defence recognition awards

The four Royal New Zealand Navy personnel who rescued a stricken yachtsman in atrocious conditions during Cyclone Gabrielle have been recognised by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) for their bravery and skills.

25 August, 2023

The coxswain of the Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB), Petty Officer Leon Reilly, has earned the Defence Meritorious Service Medal (DMSM), while divers Petty Officer Te Pumautanga Campbell, Leading Diver Israel Davis and Able Seaman Ashlea Farrar, who was the bowman, were awarded Chief of Defence Force Commendations for their part in the rescue.

In all, two DMSMs and eight CDF Commendations were awarded this month, recognising exceptional service across the NZDF.

In February, HMNZS Te Mana was called on to help with the rescue of a solo yachtsman east of Great Barrier Island when the rough conditions prevented the Northland Rescue Helicopter from carrying out the rescue utilising their rescue winch.

Te Mana approached the yacht which was taking on water in five- to six-metre swells and 40-knot winds.

Petty Officer Reilly was summoned to Te Mana’s bridge and after a discussion between the Captain and the Northland Rescue Helicopter, which resulted in a request for Te Mana to undertake the rescue as conditions were too dangerous for the helicopter. The captain asked him if he was happy to coxswain the RHIB.

Petty Officer Reilly said he had never encountered sea conditions like that in a RHIB before.

“The sea was like a washing machine. There was no consistency in the waves, they were all over the place.

“The sea spray was probably the hardest part of it because you can’t breathe as soon as the water hits your face and mouth.”

Piloting the RHIB to the yacht was also a test, with Petty Officer Reilly sometimes having to take direction from the rescue helicopter as he couldn’t see where the yacht was at times.

“It felt like a game of forceback. You’d gain ground but then some waves were too big.  At times I had the boat under full power but it was still going backwards.”

Petty Officer Reilly was trying to safely get the RHIB in close to the yacht when the crew realised the yachtie was in the water and they were able to pull him aboard.

The trip back to Te Mana was no easier and the waves meant the RHIB was airborne at times.

Thirty-four-year-old Petty Officer Reilly, from Rotorua, and who enlisted in 2006 and was named Sailor of the Year in 2014, said he was grateful and proud to be awarded the DMSM.

At the time, Petty Officer Reilly’s partner Steph was five months pregnant with their first child, River Jay Reilly.

He put thoughts of his own safety and family to one side.

“I didn’t think about the risks, if things were to go wrong I was responsible for the boat and its crew once we left the ship. I used that huge responsibility to drive me to get us all back on board Te Mana safely. It wasn’t until afterwards that I started dwelling on what might have happened to me or my crew.”

Petty Officer Reilly said the Navy’s continuous training paid dividends during the rescue.

“When it’s the real thing, everything we have trained for kicks in and muscle memory and a bit of adrenalin takes over.”

Five other NZDF personnel and one unit have also been recognised this month:

Lieutenant Commander Kelvin Barrett (DMSM) 

For almost four decades, Lieutenant Commander Barrett has contributed to the operational and training capabilities of the diving trade. He has provided unwavering loyalty and service to diving quality, safety, standards and development of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) diving organisation. 

As the NZDF Seaworthiness Diving Safety and Standards lead, he has single-handedly rewritten the organisational diving publications and policy. Lieutenant Commander Barrett is often called upon to provide subject matter expertise across the NZDF and other nations on all facets of diving, mine counter measures and the application of safety and standards in this critical and high-risk military occupation.

His work also extends to supporting the New Zealand Police in their response to maritime search and recovery tasks, often involving the locating and recovery of deceased persons from the sea, lakes and rivers.

CDF Commendations:

Wing Commander Joseph Tasker 

Wing Commander Tasker was the inaugural manager of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) women’s rugby team when it came into existence in 2019. Over the last four years under his management, the team has evolved into a strong and sustainable entity that continues to advance NZDF’s reputation domestically and internationally.

Wing Commander Christopher Pearn

Wing Commander Pearn was posted to the P-8A Poseidon project in 2018 and relocated to the United States the following year as the project’s senior foreign liaison officer. His commercial expertise meant he was appointed by the Ministry of Defence as the foreign military sales case manager for $1.8 billion worth of US projects.

Squadron Leader Brett Goodall

Recognised for his work with the New Zealand Defence Force regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) as the work expanded from a single aviation system to a complex one capable of supporting a wide spectrum of UAS, operators, and environments.

New Zealand Cadet Force Wing Commander Andrew Horst

Recognised for his work over many decades with the New Zealand Cadet Forces (NZCF). Wing Commander Horst continues to be an extremely willing volunteer officer who consistently demonstrates the core values of both the NZCF and New Zealand Defence Force. He sacrifices much of his personal time to commit to the betterment of youth development with a military flavour.

E Squadron 1st New Zealand Special Air Service Regiment

E Squadron of the 1st New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment was established to provide a chemical, biological, radiological and explosive capability as part of the whole-of-government response to domestic explosive disposal incidents.

E Squadron has been fully operational since 2005, providing an immediate response capability to all areas of New Zealand.

Since the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) trade was established in 2015, E Squadron has conducted more than 1,000 responses in support of the New Zealand Police and other government agencies, as well as supporting the clearance of remnants of war from the islands of our Pacific partners.

Recent years have seen an unprecedented spike in the need for EOD capabilities with support to the Christchurch terror attacks, the Whakaari/White Island tragedy and the protests on Parliament grounds in 2022.