Sailing sav to save sailors

From New Zealand Society, 2:16 pm on 13 November 2015

By Daniela Maoate-Cox

For over a decade yachties and wineries in Marlborough have hit the waters to race a bottle of sauvignon blanc across the Cook Strait but this time, they are also racing for those in the air.

A southerly fills the sails of 39 boats that are waiting just outside the Tory Channel off the coast of Picton in the South Island.

On each yacht is a bottle of the Marlborough region's new vintage of sauvignon blanc padlocked in a wooden box to prevent any sneaky taste tests.

It's the 14th annual Wineworks Marlborough sauvignon blanc yacht race based on the Beaujolais race from France to England and every year more yachts from throughout New Zealand join in for the chance to claim bragging rights and a bottle of wine.

On race day the conditions are calm and sunny but the Cook Strait is not always so accommodating.

Fourteen years ago the owner of Midnight, Chris Webb, felt the full brunt of the strait's force while crewing a boat from Wellington to Akaroa.

Three hours into the trip with winds reaching 40 knots their 40-foot boat lost steerage in southern Cook Strait.

They drifted further south as they waited for someone to tow them but the conditions were getting worse.

"We got caught by a big wave and the boat got 360, rolled upside down. One of the crew got thrown and hurt," he says.

Chris Webb says he is happy to do anything for Life Flight including racing a bottle of wine across the strait. Nov 2015

Chris Webb says he is happy to do anything for Life Flight including racing a bottle of wine across the strait. Photo: RNZ/ Daniela Maoate-Cox

They declared a mayday and waited for the helicopter to rescue them.  

"I was in the second group to go up to the helicopter and the sling caught under my life jacket and pushed it up into my throat so I couldn't breathe."

Chris lost consciousness in the sling and slipped back into the rough seas.

"I woke up in the water with a mouthful of water and it was pretty rough, I'm guessing we had seas of six or seven meters going through and they were breaking."

But Chris says the crew in the helicopter above did everything right to save them including making a tough call to tell those in the churning water to remove their life jackets.

That crew belonged to Life Flight, the emergency air service which operates a Westpac Rescue Helicopter in Greater Wellington and Marlborough as well as a nationwide air ambulance service.

Tailing the yachts on board the  Pacific Eagle is Life Flight captain Holly McDougall who says stories like Chris' are not uncommon among the race attendees.

"The first person I chatted to this morning, I said do you know what Life Flight does? And she said, absolutely you saved me 20 years ago."

The woman had gone into labour at 28 weeks and was picked up by one of Life Flight's fixed wing aircrafts to take her from Woodbourne near Blenheim to Wellington.

A healthy boy was born and flown home a couple of days later.

Life Flight comes up short about $2,500 each time it sends out an aircraft.

Life Flight comes up short about $2,500 each time it sends out an aircraft. Photo: Photo/Supplied

But the cost of each call-out is high.

About $8,000 an hour is needed to run the helicopter while the fixed-wing aeroplane racks up about $4,500.

Each aircraft flies once a day, every day on average and even with the trust subsidising the flights it still comes up short by about $2500 each time.

With many of the yachties having a story about Life Flight, race organiser Juliet Abbott says making Life Flight their first charity partner was a logical step.

"They've been such an amazing part of a lot of our sailors lives and a lot of the crew today have been rescued in previous years by Life Flight so we really appreciate what they do."

Chris is certainly happy to sail in support of it.

"You'd stand on the side of the boat with it jumping around in seven-meter seas and they put the harness in your hand. I don't know how they hell they do it but they did it. They are amazing so if I can do anything to help Life Flight I'm more than happy to do it."

Including racing a bottle of wine across the strait?

"Absolutely, and if we help to drink it when we get there, so much the better."

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes