His mates call him “Infamous Richard” because he’s always attracting trouble, and when his wife heard his new yacht Cabaret II was in trouble 110km off the Taranaki coast on Saturday she wasn’t surprised.
But while being plucked from wild seas in a strop dangling from a rescue helicopter, his scuttled Raven yacht sinking behind him, skipper Richard Knott knew he and crewmates Raymond Head and Ernst Bowmen had made the right call.
Married dads all, their lives mattered more than a storm-battered 7.9 metre hunk of fibreglass and plywood now at the bottom of the sea.
“That’s just material things, isn’t it?”, said Knott, Tasman Bay Cruising Club’s race commodore and a two-decade veteran on the sea.
“People’s lives are more important … I think we made the right decisions all the way along.”
The first was contacting Maritime New Zealand on Friday night to say they were battling weather-related issues, and setting up regular check-ins.
Five days after leaving Whāngārei to sail the secondhand yacht he’d bought in May home to Nelson, the crew of Cabaret II found themselves being thrashed by unexpectedly wild seas and wind, Knott said.
“We knew there was a storm, we knew we were going to get hammered a little bit but the storm came in slightly earlier [and] nothing like what was predicted.”
The view of Cabaret II from the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter off Taranaki on Saturday morning. Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust
They expected 35 to 45 knot winds (64km/h to 83/kmh) and 3m to 4m swells.
Instead, at the storm’s peak on Friday night, it was blowing 60kts (111km/h), gusting 80kts (148km/h) and the swell was 6m to 7m “with the odd rogue wave coming in as well”, the 51-year-old said.
“Basically we were dealing with force 10 storm conditions … if you didn’t know what you were doing, you would’ve been history.”
Even with the drogue trailing behind the stern to slow them they were travelling at 9kts (16km/h), about 7km/h faster than they should’ve been, and all without sails up.
Knott was at the helm until 4.30am, his tether the only thing stopping him from being washed overboard by the relentless surges of water.
“It’s like someone’s throwing a sandbag at you all the time.”
There were moments of fear, including that they’d pitch pole (go end over end), but there was also little time to think, he said.
“You’re too busy trying to survive.”
Conditions were little better below deck, he said.
“I don’t know what was worse, being in the cabin being thrown around like a washing machine or being on the tiller trying to hang on.
“It’s the biggest seas I’ve ever been in. When you see water above your spars, [poles used in the rigging of a sailboat to carry or support its sail] you know it’s four-floor type stuff.”
By 7.30am, when they realised they were on a “treadmill” because of differences in sea floor depths in the Taranaki Basin - meaning there was no way they would reach New Plymouth - and with continued poor conditions forecast, Cabaret II’s electronics water-damaged and its hull compromised, and with everyone tired, the trio decided to put out a mayday call and set off their emergency locator beacon.
Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter crew and the men they saved, after Saturday's successful mission, from left critical care paramedic Jono Sampson, pre-hospital and retrieval medicine doctor Kate St Louis (with sons Archie and Charlie), survivors Ernst Bowmen, Richard Knott and Raymond Head, helicopter pilot Simon Owen and air crew officer Graham “Jonesy” Jones. The survivors are clad in old rescue helicopter uniforms and bare feet, which they flew commercial home to Nelson in. Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust
By 10.30am, Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter was hovering above - Wellington-based Life Flight’s Westpac Rescue Helicopter in support - and another crew had a decision to make.
With Cabaret II “bobbing and swinging around” in the 4m swell and 77km/h wind it was decided winching each sailor from the water was safest, pilot Owen said.
Bowmen jumped in first and Head second, with rescue swimmer and critical care paramedic Jono Sampson putting a strop around each one at a time before they were winched aboard the AW-169 helicopter.
Conditions were challenging, Owen said.
“I was working pretty hard, but I’m proud of my air crew officer and paramedic. There’s so many moving parts when you’re winching over water.
“[And] it could’ve been a different story if [those on the yacht] hadn’t been so experienced and well supplied.”
The three friends were sailing Cabaret II from Whāngārei to Nelson when they got into trouble off Taranaki on Saturday. Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust
Last off Cabaret II was Knott, who scuttled the partly-insured “but cheap” 49-year-old yacht so it wouldn’t become a navigational hazard.
He wasn’t fazed jumping into the waters that’d soon claim his yacht, with a survival suit and lifejacket protecting him from the worst of the elements and keeping him buoyant.
Neither was being winched dozens of metres up to a hovering helicopter a frightening experience for the Brightwater joiner and Cabinet maker, and former Whakatāne volunteer firefighter.
It was hardly the first time for “Infamous Richard” - it was his fifth, three in roles with the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council and Land Search and Rescue and a fourth when his mountaineering partner was injured in Mt Aspiring in 2000, requiring both to be rescued.
And then there was three years ago, no winch involved this time, when he was flown off Porters’ Alpine Resort by rescue helicopter with a broken leg.
Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter rescue swimmer and critical care paramedic Jono Sampson with one of the three yachties winched from the water after their yacht got into trouble off Taranaki on Saturday. The rescued men later shouted their saviours a round of pies. Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust
He can laugh about the history that’s earned him a novel nickname, but all three aboard Cabaret II’s final journey have also learned lessons they’ll take back to their home club, Knott said.
The first was to never be shy of putting in a pan-pan [urgent but not life-threatening] call to maritime authorities if you have problems or could be in danger.
“Put yourself their radar and keep those communications going, because then they’ve got time to prepare and know what they’re dealing with.”
The second was to know when it was time to “call it quits before someone gets hurt”.
“To me it’s like climbing a mountain, when you get summit fever, but instead it’s ‘I’ve got to preserve this boat’.
“And it’s like, ‘No, we’ve all got families, and we want to live’.”
Cherie Howie is an Auckland-based reporter who joined the Herald in 2011. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years and specialises in general news and features.
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