Story by CPO Sara Muir on 05/26/2017HONOLULU Six Tongan fishermen are safe today following a joint rescue effort between the U.S. Coast Guard, Maritime New Zealand and the Tongan navy.
The men arrived safely to Tongatapu aboard a Tongan naval patrol boat after they were initially located by a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules aircrew from Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii.
"I'm proud of my crew and how well we represented the United States this past week," said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Koehler, Hercules pilot, Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point. "Two days ago we were in New Zealand at the 2017 Pacific Search and Rescue Conference talking to delegates from Tonga about search and rescue capabilities and today we spotted a disabled vessel 80 miles off of Tonga's shore on night vision goggles without use of the radar. The conference was designed to strengthen relationships and enhance search and rescue interoperability in the Pacific to address rescue situations like this."
U.S. Coast Guard watchstanders at Joint Rescue Coordination Center Honolulu received a request Wednesday afternoon from personnel at Joint Rescue Coordination Center New Zealand to help locate a 40-foot fishing vessel with six fishermen reported overdue on a voyage from Tonumeia Island to Tongatapu with estimated time of arrival of 7 p.m. Tuesday. Members of the community reportedly searched the area around the islands and did not find them, prompting the request for further support.
The Hercules crew, due to return to Hawaii from Auckland following participation in the regional search and rescue conference, was diverted from their original mission to respond.
Upon arrival to the search area Wednesday evening, about 80 miles off Tonga, the Hercules crew sighted the fishermen waving a white flag. They released a long range deployable drop kit to the crew of the disabled vessel which included food and water, a VHF radio, and a transponder. Watchstanders at JRCC Honolulu notified RCC New Zealand personnel of the vessel's position. Due to fuel constraints the Hercules crew was forced to depart the scene to American Samoa for fuel and crew rest.
RCC New Zealand personnel provided the position to the Tongan naval patrol boat crew who used the transponder to successfully re-located the fishing vessel and rescue all six men. All six fishermen are reportedly ion good condition.
In addition, the deployable long range drop kit, while not standard across the Coast Guard, is a combination of equipment packaged together as a kit and carried by Air Station Barbers Point Hercules crews for exactly this kind of case. Best practices such as this are the kind of thing shared at the conference to improve response in a region known for vast distances, challenging conditions in remote areas and limited response resources.