Officers from the Marine Area Command involved in a dangerous mission to recover two women swept into a whirlpool in the Blue Mountains, and a record-long yacht tow to save three sailors near Lord Howe Island, have been recognised for their efforts in national search and rescue awards.
The 2021 National Search and Rescue Awards recognise individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to search and rescue in Australia between 1 July 2020 – 30 June 2021, with recipients announced at the National Search and Rescue Council annual meeting yesterday (Wednesday 20 October 2021).
The Professional Search and Rescue Award was awarded to NSW Police Divers, Senior Sergeant Raymond Busby, Sergeant Josh Lisle, Sergeant Steven Wye, Senior Constable Tim Boardman, and Senior Constable Ryan Good, for their efforts in the Blue Mountains rescue.
On the afternoon of Saturday 2 January 2021, a group of canyoners were traveling on inflatable lilos down the Wollangambe River, Mount Wilson, when a 24-year-old woman was swept into a whirlpool and disappeared.
Off-duty Senior Constable Kelly Foster – a highly regarded officer from Chifley Police District – was among the group and attempted to rescue the woman before she was also swept in.
As part of the emergency response in the wake of the tragedy, NSW Police Divers hiked into the canyon for about two hours with heavy dive equipment. They entered the water to search for the women in the whirlpool in an enclosed, confined environment, where there was a high risk of becoming trapped or tangled with their dive equipment.
“Despite the strong currents and presence of an underwater whirlpool, the officers were able to retrieve the deceased persons so they could be returned to their families,” said Mark Morrow from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the National Search and Rescue Council Secretariat.
“This incident was physically and mentally fatiguing for the officers involved and their efforts under the challenging circumstances were truly outstanding,” said Mr Morrow.
NSW Police Diver, Senior Sergeant Raymond Busby, said none of the divers who responded to the incident had ever been faced with the challenges of a whirlpool before.
“We didn’t know what lay ahead, no one had dived into a whirlpool before, but we all know there is always a risk when we enter the water,” Sgt Busby said.
“In this scenario, the risk was worth it to find the women so we could ensure they were returned to their families.
“Sadly, this incident is a reflection of what we do daily, and I am grateful that the team has received recognition for their actions, despite the circumstances being so tragic,” Sgt Busby said.
Officers from Port Stephens Water Police were also recognised for their outstanding contribution to search and rescue in Australia, receiving a Commendation in the Professional Search and Rescue category.
Sergeant Tony Hogg, Senior Constable Matthew Gray, and Senior Constable Nicholas Leach were recognised for their efforts in a 54-hour operation to rescue three sailors from a troubled 11.5m yacht, the Solar Coaster.
The NSW Marine Area Command received a distress call from the crew on Monday 9 November 2020, 100 nautical miles west of Lord Howe Island.
The yacht’s mast had broken, leaving the crew to navigate the vessel through large swell and strong currents with an underpowered engine.
The officers monitored the yacht over 48-hours before it became clear the crew – facing fatigue, as well as food and water shortages – wouldn’t reach the mainland without assistance.
Officers from the Marine Area Command then conducted one of the longest non-stop tows by their command in NSW.
The officers covered more than 400 nautical miles, with seas up to five metres and winds over 40 knots, to bring the men and yacht safely back to shore.
The operation took a total of 54-hours.
“The officers from Port Stephens Marine Area Command conducted this operation in extreme conditions and saved the lives of three men,” said Mr Morrow.
“All three crew performed their duties as police officers and mariners with extreme professionalism and courage under adverse ocean conditions and I consider them to be an exemplary example of ‘Outstanding Contribution to Search and Rescue’ in Australia,” said Mr Morrow.
Port Stephens Water Police, Sergeant Tony Hogg, said the job was one of the most challenging rescues of his career.
“The sea conditions were very ordinary to say the least, we were getting continually battered on our starboard side for about 50 of the 54 hours we were at sea, but the professionalism and training of my team allowed for a successful outcome,” Sgt Hogg said.
“Being an officer attached to the Marine Area Command has provided me with some challenging and truly unique experiences, which I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to be involved in.
“The satisfaction you get out of a rescue of this nature is very hard to explain, but we are extremely grateful we were able to successfully rescue these three men and reunite them with their families,” Sgt Hogg said.
Marine Area Command Chief Inspector Joe McNulty said the professionalism of the divers and Port Stephens officers is nothing less than admirable.
“They undertook two very difficult, high-risk, challenging operations in adverse weather and aquatic conditions,” said Chief Inspector McNulty.
“The Police Dive team developed a recovery methodology to return the two women to their families. Their actions were nothing less than brave under these extreme operational conditions.
“The Port Stephens rescue took 54 hours to complete, with a police crew surviving on minimal rest and sleep. Their professionalism, resilience and personal endurance were truly remarkable,” said Mr McNulty.
Further information on the winners can be found here: