'SOS' scrawled in sand helps save stranded man
Sunday 11 May 2014 4:40 p.m.
A Northland boatie is grateful to be alive and able to tell his unbelievable tale of bad and great luck and of how good things come in threes, including the letters he scrawled on a remote beach.
Todd Vercoe was not wearing a lifejacket when a large wave swept him overboard 1 kilometre north of Rimariki Island yesterday.
He swam to the rocky reef and then onto the mainland at Kaituna Bay, but the 36-year-old still was not safe.
His ordeal in bitterly cold water would not have happened at all if not for a moment of pure bad luck.
"I thought I would take a bit of a pee off the back of a boat, [but I] hit an awkward wave and got bounced off the back of the boat and saw the boat sailing off into the distance," he says.
Mr Vercoe's mates were not even aware of the trouble he was in as they slept below deck.
"I thought time was up. I was five or six miles out and thought, 'Do I float around and wait to get hypothermia and die, or go for it?'"
A strong swimmer from his surfing days, Mr Vercoe struck out for land. But he was battling rough weather and weighed down by heavy clothing he thought might keep him warm.
"Because the polar fleece was slowing me down I couldn't really do freestyle, so I just ended up doing breaststroke and was only making a knot and it seemed like forever."
And his slow progress was not his only concern.
"I was a bit worried about big biteys. I was a bit weary because it's quite a shark renowned place."
Exhausted and suffering from mild hypothermia, Mr Vercoe somehow reached Rimiriki Island. But knowing how slim his chances were of being seen at nightfall, Mr Vercoe made a last attempt to get to the mainland.
"It was the will to survive; I just kept going."
And he did. But it was one last effort that secured his rescue. Mr Vercoe drew a large SOS sign in the sand, which was spotted by helicopter rescue staff just as they were about to head back for night vision gear.
"We come across to the beach to land and we literally just saw him there, waving frantically with the SOS written out in the sand," says Dean Voelkerling of Northland Emergency Services Trust.
Rescue staff from Northland's Electricity Rescue helicopter say it was a miracle that Mr Vercoe escaped without serious injury, and helped by three cups of coffee, he was soon ready to tell his tale to whoever would listen.