A pair of 15 Squadron Charlie flight BK-117 helicopters formed a large part of the successful rescue of 25 crewmen south-east of Cape Recife on Thursday.
The rotary-winged aircraft were scrambled after National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) Port Elizabeth had launched its sea rescue craft Eikos Rescue IV and the casualty craft Helena Marie along with the Xtreme Projects boat Scar Face to support a rescue from the stricken crayfish boat Baratz.
The NSRI was activated by the Transnet National Ports Authority following an urgent request for assistance from Baratz. It reported no motor power and was also taking water off Cape Recife in rough sea conditions with up to five metre swells and south-easterly winds gusting up to 20 knots.
NSRI Port Elizabeth station commander Ian Gray said: “On arrival on scene it was found the casualty crew had sealed the engine room which was waterlogged and the Helena Marie attempted to take Baratz under tow. Baratz listed and began to sink forcing her crew to abandon ship into life-rafts.
“The Port Authority tug Mkuze was also activated and responded to the scene,” he said, adding a search was initiated for two fishermen suspected missing.
“This was after crew in the life-rafts were safe and the NSRI was satisfied the search for the suspected missing crew took priority over attempting to transfer casualty crew in the rough sea conditions.
“Despite two life jackets found on the surface, leading to fears two fishermen could be unaccounted for it was then confirmed a casualty crewman had been rescue from the surf by an NSRI rescue swimmer from the Eikos Rescuer IV. He failed to make it into the life-raft and was swept away by winds and currents while wearing a life jacket.
“Fifteen casualty crew were confirmed in one life raft and nine in another. With all accounted for a boat to boat transfer was deemed unsafe.
“NSRI rescue swimmers were deployed from the two SAAF helicopters into the water and in relays, one at a time, casualty crew were taken out of the life rafts into the sea, swum away from the life raft, in the care of the rescue swimmer, and hoisted aboard the helicopters, again in relays and brought ashore and landed behind Something Good at Pollock Beach where NSRI rescuers and Eastern Cape Government Health EMS personnel were on hand to triage casualties as they were landed and disembarked from the rescue helicopters. The rescue helicopters then returned to the scene to rescue more crew from life rafts as well as crew members who had been transferred onto the sea rescue craft.
“All crew were safely brought ashore aboard the SAAF helicopters with their numbers confirmed by a roll-call,” Gray said.
The crayfish boat Baratz is presumed sunk and the incident will be investigated by the SA Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA).
AFB Durban is home to 15 Squadron with a mixture of Agusta A109 and Oryx helicopters. The squadron’s C Flight flies BK117s out of AFB Port Elizabeth and it is the only SAAF squadron that currently has a detached flight. Apart from search and rescue, both inland at and sea, 15 Squadron is also tasked with providing VIP transport, mostly for President Jacob Zuma between King Shaka International Airport and his Nkandla homestead in rural northern KwaZulu-Natal. C Flight’s BK-117s have also been used to support ground-based anti-poaching operations by providing aerial surveillance and tracking of suspected poachers.
In September Parliament’s Transport Portfolio Committee was told South Africa is lacking when it comes to rescue at sea with apparently only one SA Air Force pilot qualified to land on a vessel at sea. Cleeve Robertson, chief executive of the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), told the committee South Africa was not sufficiently equipped to evacuate sick or injured people by helicopter from the more than 12 000 ships passing the country’s coastline annually.
He said the SAAF also had insufficient helicopters to cope with emergencies at sea citing the example of 22 Squadron at AFB Ysterplaat which, according to him, can only put one Oryx medium transport helicopter into the air at any one time.
Photograph: National Sea Rescue Institute