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July 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Reminiscing about Being Adrift at Sea

two divers lucky to have made it

from the July, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Each year on April 20, New Zealand divers Garry Ham and Kevin Sim get together for a few drinks and fish and chips. This year, for the 21st time, the two met up again, reminiscing about the time they survived 27 hours floating in the Cook Strait.

It was an ordinary morning on April 20, 1997, when they hit the water. The sun was shining, and the conditions in the Queen Charlotte Sound were optimal for catching crayfish.

Ham was one of the first of 10 divers off the boat, armed with a bag to store his catch. It seemed like an ordinary dive. He caught some crays and lost sight of his dive buddy. Nothing unusual. After half an hour, when he realized he was running low on air, he signaled to Sim that he was heading up. But as the pair reached the surface, they realized a tidal rip had dragged them about 50 meters from the boat.

"You just carry on floating . . . there's not much you can do."

Sim blew up his safety sausage to get the attention of the boat crew, but the sun was shining directly at their target, limiting visibility. "As far as we could see, no one could see us," Ham said.

The two were 'bobbing up and down" while they continued to drift away, helplessly. "We were just floating farther and farther out, but at the same time there were another five sets of divers in the water, and the boat couldn't start searching until all those other divers came up."

About 11.30 a.m, before Search and Rescue was notified, Ham said, "We were getting a long way out. We just stuck together, and we could see the boat searching for us. They do circles -- and the circles get bigger and bigger-- but we were outside that radius all the time. We could see planes and helicopters flying over the top of us and going to the area where we first dived."

The last time they saw a boat heading toward them was probably about 3.30 p.m., Ham said. "They were heading straight for us, and we thought they had spotted us. We could see someone standing up on the top, and then they just stopped, turned around and took off."

I remember thinking 'why have they turned around?' I couldn't believe it," Sim said.

Ham said he was just trying to keep it together. "I believed that they were going to find us. You expect they are going to be there; they are going to be searching, they are going to find you eventually."

As the sun started to set, the conditions in the Cook Strait were calm. Sim said, "It was dark, and I thought 'oh well, we're here for the night.' I thought 'how many people have spent the night out here and got away with it?' but I tried to avoid those thoughts and just carried on."

The pair found some driftwood floating and decided to latch themselves to it. "We discussed if it got really rough we could clip our vests together, but we didn't need to do that because we were holding onto this log," Ham said. However holding onto the log proved difficult as it kept spinning, forcing the two to regrip continually. "We would try and kick every now and then to loosen up our legs, to try and stop us from falling asleep," Ham said.

They started to get dehydrated and were working tirelessly on an empty stomach. The only food they had were the crays they had caught earlier. But they didn't eat them. Slowly came the realization they would be stuck out at sea all night.

They had started drifting quite far. Lights from Mana Island were visible, and the two contemplated swimming there.

Then the storm hit. Heavy rain hammered their faces. They weren't sure how long it lasted; they began to lose track of time. "

Ham said, "We started talking about our families, the things we had done early in life. Kevin had lived in Australia and so had I, so we talked about that and motorbikes. But not in an 'I'm going to die' way. I never thought about dying because we weren't hurt. We knew where we were and we were quite buoyant because I had a dry suit on and Kevin had a new wetsuit on. Then you have your BCD, so you're not going to sink."

"Kevin had a snorkel so he could breathe, but I didn't have one, so a lot of the time I was actually breathing in salt water."

The two did have a moment of panic, however, when they spotted a fin in the water. Much to their relief, it turned out to be a dolphin. And, they were also greeted by a seal during the night, which seemed to be as startled by them as they were by it.

There were dashes of hope throughout the night. Ham had blown up his safety sausage and put his torch inside it to create a signal to capture the attention of the fishing and passenger boats. A ferry started heading toward them, but their hopes were doused as Ham's torch went out.

"They turned the boat around to come toward us, but my torch got wet, so that was an end to that," he said. "You just carry on floating . . . there's not much you can do."

The two were hit by another, much more ferocious storm during the night. "Kevin had a snorkel so he could breathe, but I didn't have one, so a lot of the time I was actually breathing in salt water," Ham said. "I did feel sick in the guts at one stage," he said.

And trying to stay awake was a "bit of a battle," Sim said.

They weren't sure how long the storm lasted, but by the time the sun rose, it was a beautiful day. With a renewed sense of hope, they were confident there would be lots of people out looking for them. They soon realized "there was nothing."

"The first couple hours we were waiting for something but nothing was happening and that's when I decided to start swimming away, and I found I was sort of gaining ground," Ham said. After a couple of hours swimming, Ham spotted a boat coming from the North Island.

"I saw the boat go past and I could see the people on the back of the boat, and I'm sure they were just having a cup of coffee, and I blew up my safety sausage. They got about 100 to 200 meters in front of me, and one of them spotted my safety sausage, something different out of the water, and they came back to investigate, and that's when they came across me," Ham said.

It was a feeling of absolute "elation," he said. "I was pretty excited because if that boat had gone, there was nothing else around.

"I got on the boat, and they were all old retired blokes coming over to the Marlborough Sound to go fishing for the day, and the first thing they gave me was a dried fruit cake and a cup of coffee," he said.

Meanwhile, Sim was still out at sea. After spotting him, they picked him up, and the crew on the boat radioed Search and Rescue, telling them they had found the missing divers. All the while, Search, and Rescue had been looking for bodies washed up along the shoreline.

Ham and Sim hopped on the Coastguard boat and were briefed on what was going to happen next. They bypassed the TV crews and crowds waiting for them at Picton marina and traveled back to Blenheim, Ham in a police car and Sim with his family.

Despite their harrowing ordeal, Ham and Sim remained committed divers. Within two weeks, they were back in the water.

- From an article in the
New Zealand Marlborough Express.

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