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Source: New Zealand Defence Force

A Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) P-3K2 Orion crew has helped save the lives of seven Kiribati and Fijian fishers when they carried out three separate search and rescue operations over five days in the Pacific.

The crew successfully located two vessels in separate searches, but unfortunately a third boat, which went missing last week, was unable to be found.

The first of the three searches began on Saturday when the Orion was deployed to Kiribati to look for a six-metre wooden fishing boat with three men aboard, which had been missing since Wednesday.

The New Zealand Defence Force had been asked by Maritime New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) on behalf of the Rescue Coordination Centre Fiji – which coordinates search and rescues in this region – to send the Orion.

During Saturday afternoon, the Orion crew received a second request to search for another boat with four people aboard, also reported missing from Kiribati.

The crew located this boat on Sunday, dropping a survival pack which included an activated locator beacon, water, chocolate, a strobe light, a torch and a note with information about how the four would be rescued.

Staff at the Kiribati maritime coordination centre sent a rescue vessel, Natinteraoi, which sailed directly to the locator beacon position and rescued the four in the early hours of Monday morning. Without the locator beacon dropped by the Orion, the rescue vessel would have been unlikely to be able to find the boat in the dark.

After finding this boat, the Orion crew resumed the search for the first fishing boat. However, despite extensive efforts over the weekend and on Monday, they were unable to locate that vessel.

The Orion was to return to Auckland on Tuesday but bad weather forced an overnight stay in Fiji.

On Tuesday evening, the Orion crew received their third request to search for a vessel, a fishing boat reported overdue after departing Gau Island for Suva, Fiji on Saturday night.

On Wednesday morning they found the boat drifting in open water about 40 nautical miles to the southeast – and going away from – Kadavu Island.

The three people aboard appeared well and waved at the crew. One person on the bow was seen attempting to paddle with a makeshift oar.

With no other vessels in the vicinity, the crew dropped a pack with a beacon and radio to the survivors and Fiji Police sent a vessel to their location to take them to safety.

During search and rescue operations, RCCNZ provides RNZAF crews with search areas which are modelled from the last known movements of the vessels, currents and weather patterns. The crew formulates a plan based off the modelling, conducting both radar and visual searches over what can be vast areas of ocean.

When a missing vessel is found, crews drop survival packs to those on board, establish radio communications with them, and provide locator beacons and coordinates so rescue vessels can pinpoint their location, rescue the survivors and take them to safety.

Air Component Commander Air Commodore Shaun Sexton said those involved in the searches felt for the friends and whānau of the fishermen who had not been found.

“It’s been an incredible achievement by our crew, and search and rescue staff in New Zealand, Fiji, and Kiribati, to find two groups of survivors that were drifting in boats without power in vast areas of ocean far from land or any other vessels,” he said.