Sunday, December 3, 2023

Beacons of rural can-do at the lighthouse

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It’s these folk you want to have around you in a crisis, says Steve Wyn-Harris.
If serendipity comes from being in the right place at the right time, Steve Wyn-Harris’s propensity to stop for a chat proved extremely lucky.
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I have a tale of serendipity and just plain old-fashioned luck. Serendipity is the occurrence and development of events by chance in a beneficial way. 

And this story also shows rural folk are great to have around in a crisis.

Last week Jane and I travelled to Castlepoint for the wedding of our good friend’s daughter.

On the way we were saddened to see the damage Cyclone Gabrielle had wrought on Tīnui and surrounds. The iconic Tīnui pub had seen water over the bar and the publican has shut up shop and put the for-sale sign up. 

There was a lot of other damage to the township and surrounding farmland from the slips and flooding. Near Riversdale the next day we saw the damage they were still addressing from Cyclone Hale, so don’t forget about the pockets of destruction that are also in Tararua and Wairarapa.

With time to spare before the wedding, we climbed up to the Castlepoint lighthouse and then on towards the higher point.

There was a judo group doing its thing so we watched for a while until they filed back past us, and we went out to gaze in awe at that spectacular view.

Serendipity comes from being in the right place at the right time, and that delay turned out to be critical.

Jane headed down the steps to the rocks and I characteristically stayed to chat to an American couple who had just arrived.

Then 80m below us we saw what looked like a diver in a wetsuit come into view, swimming backstroke, trying to get to the rocks below us.

Later it turned out to be a young lad wearing black pants and a puffer jacket who had fallen off the rocks on the seaward side and, fortunately for him, the southerly had swept him around the rocky point – where he had taken some damage – and into our view at that moment.

I yelled out, asking if he was in trouble, and he eventually heard me and started crying for help.

I got the Americans to ring 111 and, thinking who was in my phone, rang the bride’s father, Gary Hope, who is a Gisborne farmer and I knew would be somewhere down in the settlement.

I pleaded to him to get a boat into the water.

He rang his soon-to-be son-in-law George, who in turn rang his father, Scotty Whitehead, a local farmer who just happened to be standing next to Anders Crofoot from Castlepoint Station, who knew exactly who to ring with a boat.

Meanwhile, after giving the 111 lady the details and asking for a helicopter, I regained the lost ability to sprint down the steps to the beach and found a local who turned out to be John Griffith, a local stock agent, and asked him also to get a boat into the water. He ended up backing the boat that turned up into the sea, allowing Brian Monahan and Richard Hewitt to power out to the kid.

By this time I’d run back up to the lookout to shout reassurance to the boy and talk to the emergency operator.

Later I was surprised to look at my call history to see I’d run down and around the beach, and run back up, in 10 minutes.

Adrenaline is a powerful drug.

Meanwhile Gary had got a surfer into the sea, but finally the boat was launched and rescued the by-now almost lifeless youth.

It seemed to have taken hours, but I later realised was back on the beach with the boy within 25 minutes of my first call.

I ran back down and Gary’s brother Nigel, who by great fortune happens to be a Gisborne paramedic, had taken control of the situation.

I lifted the young man out of the boat and into a heated car. He was very white and extremely cold and later we heard was only minutes from death from hypothermia.

Nigel knew to dry him and warm him slowly in a small room with a heat pump going.

I would have put him in a warm bath or shower to heat him up quickly and possibly killed him, Nigel told me later.

Thirty minutes later a Wellington helicopter and ambulance turned up. It would have been too late for a rescue, but the ambulance took him into Masterton to be checked over and he was back with his family later that night.

I’m a terrific panicker in a crisis, I already knew that, but panic was useful for my role that morning.

All the others were sensible and unflappable rural folk who played their part in saving this young man’s life.

The next day I spent some time with the young man and his family.

He knew how close he’d come to death and was incredibly grateful to all the folk involved.

He’d tried to get that puffer jacket off but hadn’t been able to. For much of the time it looked like it had actually acted as a flotation device with the air trapped around the feathers, but towards the end became a liability as were the shoes he had on the whole time.

But his disliked swimming lessons had taught him to get on his back and remain afloat and not overly panic, so he had done a lot to save his own life.

Along with a great deal of serendipity and luck.

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