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” ....
■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.