A close call in the Cook Strait by Roger Knight
Wellington is among the windiest cities in the world, due to its position on the edge of the Cook Strait, that separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand. It is by far New Zealand’s most picturesque city, built on dramatic hills dotted with weather board houses. Flying in, buffeted by strong cross winds, it is not unusual for the pilot to make several attempts at landing.
Staying with my Maori mate Jim, who back then, was something of a rising TV soap star, we would often go diving for Paua shell for breakfast that was in abundance. Due to its hard and rubbery composition, it had to be beaten into submission before being fried up with eggs and bacon. A sort of sea food version of black pudding, except that the texture is a bit like calamari, a little chewy.
But the one, almost sentinel event, that really stands out, all these years later, was meeting Mia, a young Pakeha woman who was keen to try diving in the Cook strait, a notoriously rough stretch of water, that had previously claimed the Wahine, the Lyttelton to Wellington ferry that sank in 1968 and was New Zealand’s worst modern maritime disaster.
In the early 70’s, there was no such thing as having any diving certification necessary to hire diving gear or give instruction, so we headed off to Owhiro Bay, a treasure trove of wrecks, where paua and crayfish abound.
It is also an ideal place for novice divers to test the waters.
Starting off in shallow water, so as to gain confidence and familiarity with using scuba, we then headed out into deeper water. About 15 minutes into the dive, all seemed to be going well. In a depth of around 15 meters, Mia began pointing to her ears, which I interpreted as her having equalisation problems.
Suddenly without warning she shot up to the surface, having ejected her regulator and was clearly in a very distressed and out of control state. I quickly ascended myself, realising the seriousness of the situation.
Fortunately, my life saving training kicked in and I grabbed her from behind, so as to raise her up higher from the sea, and to prevent her from swallowing any more water. I remember thinking at the time, that I might have to jettison my scuba gear so as to be in a better position to save Mia from drowning. Then I decided to hold off as it wasn’t mine.
I would estimate that we were at least 300 meters from the shore at that stage, and there was no way we were going to make it back alive, given Mia’s distressed state. Needless to say, there was no one on the shore who might have been able to help us.
I must have shouted at her, telling her to calm down, or else we would both drown. That shock tactic fortunately worked, and I was able to start towing her back to shore. All this struggle would have been made much easier had we both been wearing buoyancy compensator devices, but they weren’t available then, which made the struggle back to the shore infinitely harder as the only way to stay afloat was to tread water.
It was heavy going, trying to keep myself and her afloat, as well as finning backwards, all at the same time. I needed to reach an outlying rock first, to rest myself and to calm Mia further down, before trying to reach the shore itself. After about an hour which had seemed like an eternity, we both finally made it to the shore in an exhausted and much relieved state.
The fact that I had clearly saved her life did not in any way diminish my guilt for placing her in such a risky situation and not taking more responsibility as regards her inexperience. She was a complete neophyte to diving and I had failed to take proper heed of this.
In a perverse way though, fuelled perhaps by the presence of endorphins, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of accomplishment at us both surviving this ordeal without even losing any gear. This unforeseen event had tested my strength, endurance, level headedness and initiative to their limits, so in the end, I hadn’t let Mia down or myself for that matter.
I allowed myself, very fleetingly, to feel proud of my achievement as the outcome could have been so very different.
I realise now that we had both courted adventure in a cavalier and irresponsible way and could have paid the ultimate price for it with our lives. I often wonder if Mia ever recalls her brush with death in the Cook Strait in quite the same way as I do today and whether or not she might still harbour any resentment towards me for subjecting her to such risk or any gratitude for having saved her life, assuming that either might come to her mind at all.