A night’s outing with friends ended in tragic circumstances for a 29 year old mother from Alofi South. She and her young baby were on a short visit from their home in Australia to see her family.
According to the acting head of the Niue Police, Inspector Brent Ioane, in the early hours of Sunday morning the duty officers at the Police Station in Alofi were alerted when they heard a commotion coming from a residence a short distance away. On further investigation the officers quickly ascertained that a person had very likely gone over a high cliff at the back of the homestead and has likely landed on the reef below.
The high winds which had been affecting the island for over a week had abated somewhat but the conditions on the reef were rough to very rough. ‘It was extremely dangerous for anyone to venture out in such conditions and in total darkness,’ Inspector Ioane said.
Even at that early hour of the morning 2am, the news of the incident quickly spread and it wasn’t long before a crowd had gathered – mainly party goers who were eager to help but ill-equipped to do so. It is understood that some had tried to enter the water but were forced back by the waves.
The Search and Rescue Team were alerted but at the break of dawn it became frustratingly clear it was not possible to launch their big boat – or any boat for that matter – from the wharf.
At daylight, with the aid of a drone and through binoculars, the police were able to confirm that a body was seen floating in the sea just off the reef at Utuko. Sadly, at that stage, the operation was now one of recovery, but with the wharf out of action, Police turned their attention to the Avatele landing.
After consultations, Inspector Ioane shifted his operation to the ramp at Avatele. ‘Those who know the channel at Avatele say that while conditions were rough, there just might be a window available for us to attempt a recovery’, he said. Having ruled out the possibility of launching the Search and Rescue boat, attention turned to other alternatives. A charter boat operator and a member of the family, Robert Rex jnr known to all as BJ or just Jay, volunteered the use of his 5.5m Stabicraft the Manu Tahi.
‘Niue Police were very grateful for the offer of assistance from BJ because in the circumstances, taking into account the conditions of the channel and the weather in general, his boat had the motor and size that could cope. Anything smaller would have been unsuitable.’
Following further consultations with Avatele fishermen who knew the channel, the clearance for Skipper/Owner BJ to launch was given. The final decision though was left to him. BJ elected to take with him two volunteers Constable Albert Tasmania and Fisheries Officer Launoa Gataua. Both had received training under Search and Rescue personnel from New Zealand.
The small crane at Avatele had been dismantled for the cyclone season so the boat had to be launched from the trailer. When all preparations were completed, the skipper and his two volunteers climbed on board and waited for the word to be given. It was now up to the shore-crew to effect a quick launch at the right time. The timing between sets of waves was going to be crucial.
With a lull in the breakers, the word was given to launch. The trailer was quickly backed down the ramp and into the water. A hundred or so metres from the ramp, already there were signs that the next set of breakers were building and approaching. As soon as the boat cleared the trailer, BJ gunned the motor and headed out the channel. A wave from the left combined with a vicious backwash from the shore was edging Manu Tahi off-course towards the reef on the right. BJ saw the danger and added more power; they were clear and heading out to the open sea. The large crowd watching the operation from any vantage point, heaved a collective sigh of relief and prayed for their safe return. Many in fact elected to stay at Avatele and to see the return of Manu Tahi.
Under normal circumstances and in calm waters it takes 20 minutes to get from Avatele to Alofi at a leisurely trolling speed. Conditions on this day were far more challenging. With daylight, the wind had shifted to the north-west and whipping up more white caps. From the lookout at Anaana the white painted hull of the little charter boat could be seen ploughing through the turbulent waters.
From vantage points along the shoreline in Alofi the Police were able to guide Manu Tahi’s crew to the right spot off Utuko where they were able to retrieve the body. Those at the scene said that big waves were crashing over the reef but off the reef conditions were manageable.
With mission accomplished in Alofi, the attention then turned to brining the boat back safely to shore at Avatele. Meantime conditions had worsened with more white caps and big swells running, but there was still a window, albeit a small one, available between sets of waves.
Before Manu Tahi left Avatele, it had been decided that on its return, the boat would be retrieved via the sandy little beach next to the ramp. This option meant that the boat could be pulled quickly onto the trailer but pulling a relatively heavy load across rough sand could leave the boat stranded and be pounded by breakers. Retrieving the boat via the usual method, i.e. by the ramp offers the quickest way of getting the boat on dry land. But the little ramp can at times, during rough conditions, throw up waves from all directions. If the ramp option was chosen, the shore-crew will need to act quickly to hold the bow steady while the boat was being pulled onto the trailer.
Those who waited on the shore at Avatele and who had never seen the channel in rough weather were treated to a spectacular and frightening display of the power of the waves. When Manu Tahi hove into sight, the little charter boat looked small and vulnerable. When all was ready on shore, it was time to bring the Manu Tahi home.
Once more, and not for the first time that day, the young skipper was called upon to exercise his own judgment. He elected to use the ramp rather than the little sandy beach. When conditions were judged right, BJ gunned the motor, pushing Manu Tahi forward against the notorious rip in the channel and into the small pool.
With the trailer lined up, Manu Tahi edged forward. A wave pushed the bow off alignment. Back off for another try. This time, the shore-crew held the bow straight. Manu Tahi was finally on the trailer and pulled to dry land. Mission accomplished.
Note from our Niue Editor:
This is one story that I wish I didn’t have to write but write it I must for this tragic event has now become part of our history and should never be forgotten. Every day, modern technology has made it possible for us, in the comfort of our own sitting rooms, to be bombarded with images of death and destruction from around the world. We have therefore, to some extent, become de-sensitised by the sheer volume of wanton destruction of human life. This tragic event in our own little island has made me realise that, here in our small community, where we genuinely care, where we keep an eye on each other, one life, especially a young life, does matter. And so as John and Rosa mourn the passing of their daughter, they are not alone. Our small community share in their grief.
Featured pic credit: Tifaga.