RFMF Com­man­der tells: A day that I will never for­get

THE SI­LENCE ON THE RA­DIO WAS AL­MOST UN­BEAR­ABLE... AND THEN MY HEART JUMPED AS THE RA­DIO CAME ALIVE.. “KULA THIS IS GUARDIAN OVER” ....

Fiji Sun - - FRONT PAGE - Rear Ad­mi­ral Vil­iame Naupoto Feed­back: rosi.doviverata@fi­jisun.com.fj

■Rear Ad­mi­ral Vil­iame Naupoto is the Com­man­der Repub­lic of the Fiji Mil­i­tary Forces. The events he re­counts here oc­curred when he was the Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer of the RFNS Kula. I re­pro­duce be­low a search and res­cue story that I penned many years back that did not make it to the dailies then. I retell this story in the hope that some­one will know the two girls and let me know how they are, bet­ter still per­haps a chance to meet them again. I re­pro­duce it ex­actly the way I wrote it then. Here goes...

It was 27 July 1994 and the newly com­mis­sioned RFNS KULA was the des­ig­nated Duty Ship. Our re­spon­si­bil­ity was to be on standby for Search and Res­cue (SAR) and or Med­i­cal Evac­u­a­tion.

KULA was a brand new Pa­cific Class Pa­trol Boat and we had just been in Fiji for ap­prox­i­mately one month af­ter de­liv­er­ing the ship from Fre­man­tle near Perth in Aus­tralia where the ship was built.

I was the Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer dur­ing that de­liv­ery voy­age and on this day I was the Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer, my Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer was Sub-Lieu­tenant Kean, the cur­rent Com­mis­sioner of the Fiji Correction­s Ser­vice.

The ship’s crew were the re­main­der of the de­liv­ery crew ex­cept for Com­man­der Koroi now with the Royal Aus­tralian Navy (RAN) whom I had as­sumed com­mand from.

I, like most of the Kula crew, ar­rived at the Naval Base at Walu Bay that morn­ing with my fam­ily ready for the of­fi­cial open­ing of the newly built build­ing that is now the Head­quar­ters Fiji Navy.

I was dressed ap­pro­pri­ately for the oc­ca­sion (Sa­fari with medals) and was look­ing for­ward to the cer­e­mony and of course the usual mer­ry­mak­ing that fol­lowed such an event.

I had no idea that I was not go­ing to be privy to that mile­stone that the Fiji Navy was about to achieve that morn­ing, but hun­dreds of miles away bat­tling the mighty forces of na­ture were two young Van­u­a­vatu sis­ters.

At around nine o’clock that morn­ing I was called into the Op­er­a­tions Room and briefed by the Op­er­a­tions Of­fi­cer, Lieu­tenant Com­man­der Peter Kraus, RAN, who was also the Mar­itime Ad­vi­sor to the Fiji Navy un­der the Pa­cific Pa­trol Boat Pro­gram (and sailed with us on the de­liv­ery voy­age) that KULA was to re­spond to a SAR mis­sion in the Lau wa­ters.

I, in turn, briefed my crew and we had to quickly ex­plain to our wives and chil­dren the sit­u­a­tion at hand. We said our good­byes de­spite the stamp­ing of feet from the lit­tle ones and the in­co­her­ent mum­bling from our wives.

I changed out of my sa­fari and into com­bat over­all and we were off. En­thu­si­asm was miss­ing at this stage but we cre­ated quite a scene as we steamed out of Suva har­bour at 18 knots!

The pas­sage to the search area was bumpy and rough but the crew were very well sea­soned from the 31 days voy­age that be­gan from the bot­tom end of the West coast of Aus­tralia, across the top through the Tor­res Strait, down the East coast to Cairns then to Fiji af­ter a re­fu­elling stop at Port Vila.

We ar­rived at the search da­tum (the most likely po­si­tion that the two girls would be) at 10 o’clock at night. The sea was very rough, it was howl­ing, rain­ing and the vis­i­bil­ity was al­most nil, there­fore, mak­ing a night search im­pos­si­ble. We switched on our search­lights and di­rected them to the im­me­di­ate front and set a look­out rou­tine.

My or­ders to the duty watch was to take nec­es­sary avoid­ing ac­tion if the two girls were sighted to en­sure that we do not en­dan­ger them fur­ther and that we would at­tempt a res­cue if the weather would safely al­low us to do so. I could not sleep that night as ev­ery time a wave smashed onto the hull of the ship, my heart sank as I told my­self “oh no we’ve just hit them” and a quick “Lord please save them”.

At day break, all hands were on deck. A new search area was cal­cu­lated to fac­tor in the eight hours that had passed and the cur­rent weather.

We worked on two drift rate cal­cu­la­tions; one was based on the drift rate of a flat bot­tom small wooden punt and the other on the drift rate of a per­son in the wa­ter (in case the punt had cap­sized and that the two girls were in the wa­ter).

We had to fac­tor the sec­ond drift rate in be­cause of the rough seas we were en­coun­ter­ing and also based on the chilling thought that kept me awake all night.. “oh no we’ve hit them... Lord, please save them”.

We were quite op­ti­mistic at this stage that we were go­ing to find them, be­cause be­fore we left Suva the day be­fore, Lieu­tenant Vo­sawale flew on a charted Fiji Air plane and con­ducted a quick search and they re­ported sight­ing a small wooden punt with two per­sons on board. But when­ever a huge wave would crash onto the bow I could not help but won­der as to how a small wooden punt could re­main afloat in such a sea state.

We set a search pat­tern into the rel­e­vant ma­chines on­board switched them on and com­menced our search. KULA was on au­topi­lot and was fol­low­ing the search pat­tern on her own and we posted five look­outs on the fly­ing bridge and two on the radar.

The weather was so bad that I al­lowed only 15 min­utes stints for the look­outs on the fly­ing bridge as they were ex­posed to the rain and the spray from the big waves that KULA was pound­ing into.

Af­ter an hour of fruit­less search, I sent a mes­sage back to Naval Op­er­a­tions

re­quest­ing an air­craft to as­sist in the search as it could cover the search area quickly and not ham­pered by the dif­fi­cult sur­face con­di­tions that we were faced with.

At around nine o’clock that morn­ing, the French Navy Guardian air­craft based in Noumea made ra­dio con­tact with us and we gave them our po­si­tion and ex­changed in­for­ma­tion on the search area.

Mo­ments later it made a low flight over us and then climbed into its search al­ti­tude and com­menced its search.

The sound of the air­craft en­gines and the sight of the air­craft as it turned into its search pat­tern brought smiles to the weary crew’s faces who in turn re­sponded with cheers, clap­ping, and whistling.

We changed our search pat­tern into an ex­pand­ing search from the cen­tre of the search area so that we would re­spond fastest if there was a sight­ing by the air­craft, and now we could af­ford to re­lax a lit­tle and have a much needed warm cup of cof­fee as we were soaked wet and cold.

I was shiv­er­ing to say the least, as I was per­haps the skin­ni­est of the whole lot, but I was hope­ful.. now I have eyes in the sky and good eyes for that mat­ter. The French Guardian air­craft is a state of the art sur­veil­lance air­craft and it has fan­tas­tic tech­nol­ogy that can de­tect, from quite a dis­tance above, a coconut bob­bing around in the ocean. I have been on that plane a few times be­fore dur­ing it’s sur­veil­lance flights in Fiji wa­ters and I have per­son­ally wit­nessed its capability.

We watched the air­craft as it flew the first line and then turned and flew the sec­ond and then turned again for the third. I re­mem­bered that ev­ery now and then I would press and re­lease the talk but­ton on the HF ra­dio just to make sure that it was work­ing so that we would hear the air­craft if they call us. The si­lence on the ra­dio was al­most un­bear­able... and then my heart jumped as the ra­dio came alive.. “Kula this is Guardian over” ....

■ TO BE CON­TIN­UED TO­MOR­ROW

Sit­ting (from left): Vil­iame Naupoto, Ti­moci Koroi, Ratu Epeli Gani­lau, Si­tiveni Rabuka, Voreqe Bain­i­marama, Peter Kraus and Fran­cis Kean.

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