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Survivor of stricken yacht reunited with his rescuers

AMSA crew

Under contract with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), Cobham Aviation Services provides fixed wing search-and-rescue (SAR) operations over land or sea, across Australia’s vast SAR region. Cobham’s SAR mission aircrew are highly trained in a range of skills and capabilities to fulfil their missions, and since the contract commencement, the team have saved or assisted more than 1,500 lives.

Cobham’s SAR teams have been fortunate to meet with a survivor on a small number of occasions. This is a particularly valuable experience for casualty culture training, enabling our crew to understand the experiences of a person in distress and providing another perspective to a SAR event.

In December 2020, one of Cobham’s SAR crews had the opportunity to meet with a sailor that they were instrumental in saving from his sinking yacht at sea.

The incident

On 22 October 2020, Cobham was tasked by AMSA to search for an 11-metre yacht, the Ciella, that had run into trouble off the North Western Cape of WA. The yacht had departed Townsville 27 days earlier attempting a solo circumnavigation of Australia.

The solo sailor, Derek Desaunois, had abandoned his sinking yacht and was in a life raft tethered to it. He had activated the yacht’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), and the sinking yacht and liferaft had also been visually sighted by a passing container ship, the Navios Sagittarius.

Cobham’s SAR team departed Perth Airport on route to Derek’s location using information from the visual sighting, the signal from the 121.5mhz EPIRB, and the aircraft’s video anomaly detection system (ViDAR). The crew subsequently located and made contact with him via Marine CH16 (a VHF radio frequency designated as an international distress frequency, and only used for distress, urgency and safety priority calls). He advised he was the only person on board the yacht and was in good health and spirits. Derek was well prepared and had a satellite phone with him, allowing the crew to liaise with him throughout the rescue effort. The crew advised Derek that a winch-capable helicopter was on its way from Karratha, and also spoke with the helicopter crew to provide situation awareness and on-site weather details. The crew then maintained constant visual contact with Derek until he was winched to safety by the helicopter.

Meeting the survivor

Derek Desaunois is a seasoned sailor with more than 40 years’ experience sailing the open seas. Following this SAR event, Derek visited Cobham’s Perth SAR base to meet with the five crew members involved in his rescue. Comments from the meeting reflect that the experience was invaluable.

I think meeting and talking with Derek sends a very powerful message, not only for the operational crew on the day but for our operational base and our Search and Rescue community. Although not every Search and Rescue has such a positive outcome, we should celebrate the “wins”. These face-to-face meetings with survivors help us to improve and learn and ultimately save more lives.

Paul Rowland, Drop Master

We sometimes feel disconnected from the survivor, especially from my position as Aircraft Mission Coordinator, as I only get to sight a survivor through the lens of our Electro-optic sensors. We rarely get feedback on what the survivors we have helped feel, or think of our service, so it has been great to get personal thanks from Derek and hear his story.

Chris Hinder, Aircraft Mission Coordinator

I really want to say thank you to the Cobham crew. They were awesome. As soon as I saw the plane overhead, I just sat back and felt safe. I was kept informed the whole time and knew what was going to happen and when. It was a very positive experience.

Derek Desaunois, survivor