NEAR-DISASTER FOR MANIHIKI BOAT PASSENGERS

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Boat runs out of gas in choppy sea

By Moana Moeka΄a

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, July 28, 2009) - A tragedy was averted in Manihiki at the weekend, following a boat trip between the Northern group atoll and nearby Rakahanga.

[PIR editor’s note: Manihiki is an atoll in the Northern Cook Islands, about 700 miles north of the country’s main island of Rarotonga. ]

A boat skippered by Trainee Samson was returning to Manihiki on Saturday afternoon when it ran out of fuel in choppy seas, around 3 p.m.

It was estimated that they were a couple of kilometers from land, and could see the waves breaking on the reef. One of the men on the boat then donned a lifejacket and attempted to swim ashore.

The village boat Vaine Tukao returned from Rakahanga just before darkness, and it was then noticed that the earlier boat had not arrived back in Tukao. Both boats traveled to Rakahanga on Friday morning.

The Vaine Tukao returned to sea around 7 p.m., tracing a path back towards Rakahanga, and it was attracted to the boat within half-an-hour by torches used by those onboard. The drifting boat did not have a VHF radio and was not carrying flares. It is unclear whether a second boat also went out to rescue the boat.

Fuel was transferred to the boat and the boats made their way back to Tukao - at the same time, looking for the man, identified as Veru Toka, who had tried to swim back to shore.

Meanwhile the Vaine Tauhunu put to sea around 7:30 p.m. in pitch darkness and captain Jeanmarie Williams said by talking to the Vaine Tukao, they estimated where Toka may have drifted given the wind conditions, swells and current. About four kilometers out from the island, to the north-west, between Tauhunu and Tukao, Williams said they heard the man’s voice in the distance.

They shone their spotlights straight ahead and caught the reflectors on the man’s lifejacket, about 50 meters from the bow.

He was picked up before 8:30 p.m., after spending just over four-and-half hours in the water.

"You could say, he was one lucky fellow," said Williams. "It was like looking for a needle in the haystack."

Williams, who is the island’s health protection unit inspector, said the rescuers were also lucky with their calculations.

"If we had been delayed for five minutes, we would have missed him."

It is estimated that Toka drifted between three to four kilometers while in the water.

Williams said using the Red Cross satellite phone they contacted Tauhunu hospital to say that they would be bringing Toka straight there.

Williams said that Toka was suffering from mild hypothermia but was okay by yesterday morning.

"A disaster was averted," said island secretary Arthur Neale. "We could have easily been looking for a body. It was just sheer luck that we found the guy."

Neale, who is also involved with the island’s sailing club, said that those in the boat also failed to follow the number one rule in the sea.

"When in the boat, stay in the boat."

Neale believes that an inquiry should be held to help improve safety on boats especially those traveling the 38 kilometers between Manihiki and Rakahanga.

He said that, like the island council, he will be awaiting the report from police on the incident.

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