A remarkable story from 2009 – The Wayne Bergstrom rescue

Wayne and BelindaOn Wednesday 30 March it has been 2 years since Wayne Bergstrom was rescued by the Knysna volunteers. The 3rd of April is the anniversary of him meeting the crew who saved his life. It is a remarkable story so we republish it here in full – as we did in the Sea Rescue magazine of Winter 2009.

As dawn broke over Knysna on Monday 30 March 2009, Wayne Bergstrom slipped the moorings of Blu 2, opened up the engines, and turned towards the famous Knysna Heads.

It was a beautiful morning. The estuary was glassy and the sky clear. His wake sent waves to the shore as his holiday house, nestled on the East Head, disappeared from view.

Entering the Heads, Wayne noted with surprise that the sea was bigger than he had expected. He had seen it like this before, so nudging the throttles a little harder, he powered the 16-foot ski boat into the channel.

Once clear of the Heads, the sea was flat. With lines set, he trawled his lures, looking for warm water, hoping to get into some big fish. He powered past Buffalo Bay and then 15km straight out to the Dalgleish banks, where he threw anchor to do some bottom fishing.

The change in the sea conditions was sudden. A westerly wind came out of nowhere and it came up hard. The sea was whipped into white caps as far as the eye could see. Blu 2 bucked against her anchor and Wayne decided to call it quits. Worried about the return trip through the Heads, he called his wife, Belinda, on his cellphone. Estimating that the return trip would take him an hour and a half, he asked her to be at the lookout on the East Head to guide him through at around 11h30.

Waves were now breaking over the bow, the wind was getting stronger and it was starting to rain. It was 10h30.

Meanwhile, Graeme Harding, Station 12 (Knysna) station commander, looked at the rapidly deteriorating weather and said to fellow crewmen Thomas Holmes and Andrew Aveley, ‘I hope nobody is out there.’

It was minutes after those prophetic words that Wayne finished stowing his anchor, put power on the engines and turned the bow into the sea. While at anchor, the boat’s transponder had stopped operating. Frustrated at not being able to get the GPS and trip log working, Wayne slowed the boat down, and with the engines ‘ticking over’, he moved to the stern to push it down.

‘It was almost as if I was bumped off the boat,’ Wayne explains. ‘Obviously, I hit something or a bit of a swell hit me, and it literally just knocked me straight off the back.

‘I fell between the two motors and, since the motors were running, there were bubbles everywhere. By the time I came up, came to my senses and turned around, the boat was gone. It was just gone.

And that was me. It was a moment of absolute panic and terror. My immediate thought wasn’t about how far the shore was or anything like that; it was literally just… s**t!’

Wayne was completely alone – no life jacket, no cellphone, about 15km from shore and in big trouble. Wearing shoes, camo shorts and a green rainjacket, he was hardly dressed for the occasion, but his first thought was to defend himself against sharks.

‘I had a leatherman in my pocket, so I took it out. I didn’t want to take my shoes off because, if anything came at me, I would be able to kick and defend myself.

‘For the first 15 or 20 minutes, the thought of swimming to shore didn’t even cross my mind. It was like I was trying to come to terms with where I had landed myself,’ he recalls.

The waves were constantly crashing on his head, pushing him under so he decided to move.

‘I started swimming my heart out.’

By 12h40, Belinda, who had been waiting at the lookout on the East Head, knew he was in trouble. Wayne was always punctual, and for him to be running so far behind his estimated time was unusual. She called Sea Rescue.

Station 12 (Knysna) station commander Graeme Harding explains: ‘Because of the weather, I decided to get the guys immediately, and we launched our 8.5m rescue boat Colorpress Rescuer.’

Graeme then contacted Station 14 (Plettenberg Bay) and asked for assistance and air support. Station commander Ray Farnham activated the crew, giving them the brief to start searching on the trip down to Knysna, before getting on the phone to organise an aircraft.

Graeme guessed that Wayne had capsized shortly after his call to his wife, and the search patterns were worked out on the drift of the boat.

The rescue crew were looking for a man on an upturned hull.

Meanwhile, Wayne had decided he had no option but to swim to shore. The huge distance didn’t frighten him, as he was extremely fit from playing squash and exercising in the gym.

‘I’d swim for 20 minutes to half an hour, then I’d get tired and turn onto my back and do a kind of backstroke doggy-paddle. Whenever I turned around, the waves would break in my face. I realised I was swallowing a lot of water, which started worrying me. After about two hours, the salt water was passing through me, like diarrhoea,’ he remembers.

‘After about three hours of swimming, the shoreline was becoming bigger and I starting panicking that I’d be stuck in the water in the dark.’

By now, Wayne was extremely tired. He drew on his reserves of mental strength by thinking of his wife and two children.

‘I kept on wondering when my wife would have called the NSRI. I shouted at her, “My babe, send those red boats!” I was praying I would see them coming through the water.’
The rescue teams were getting desperate.

Graeme had decided to send the tiny 4.2m Spirit of Knysna Yacht Club (KYC) to join the search, a decision that weighed heavily on him. The little boat, with its two crew and one engine should not be at sea without support. But everyone knew that time was running out.

Volunteers Thomas Holmes and Andrew Aveley, who earlier had watched the weather bomb out with Graeme, knew it was a risk they needed to take.

Sitting in the radio shack on top of the East Head, Graeme decided to act on a hunch that he later could not explain. He got on the radio.

‘We’re looking for a man in the water,’ was the message he sent to the rescue boats. There was silence and then the response, ‘There is no way we will find a person in the water in these conditions.’

Wayne knew he was losing it. The current was fierce, and he doubted that he’d be able to swim through the surf, which was breaking a kilometre out to sea. He removed his jacket to make a buoy, but within minutes, there were hundreds of birds around him. ‘They were landing next to me. That freaked me out. If I was getting so much attention from the sky, I must be getting attention from underneath. It was as if they knew I was going to be food. They were waiting around for me to be broken in half, so that they could get their share.

‘It was like something out of a Stephen King movie. I was so freaked out that I put the jacket back on, and the birds flew off.

With Belinda sitting on a bench metres from where he was directing the operation, Graeme could not afford to be negative. Acting on another hunch, he asked the KYC crew if they were able to go past the Western Head down towards Buffalo Bay.

For Thomas and Andrew this was bad news. They were taking a pounding from the horrid sea conditions and, if they were looking for a man in the water, they would need to pass within 15m of him. They were looking for a needle in a haystack.

Graeme recalls, ‘We had been searching for nearly three hours and I was preparing myself for the worst. I asked KYC if they would go to Castle Rock and then return to base. We implemented a one-minute radio check to make sure they were OK. On the third call, I couldn’t get them.’

The little boat had moved into a radio shadow and Thomas decided to move further out to sea so they could confirm they had finished the last pass and were returning to base.

And that’s when Andrew saw what looked like a head at the edge of his vision. Andrew turned the bow into the direction that he had seen the object and both men strained to get another sighting. And then Thomas saw it… a head that kept disappearing.

By this stage, Wayne was so exhausted, he didn’t think he could go on for another five minutes. ‘After five hours of swimming, from the top of a swell, I could see the beach between Buffalo and Brenton. I knew that I was getting closer. But I was exhausted, totally finished,’ he remembers.

‘And then I heard it, this distant little buzz. A little rubber duck was a few hundred metres away. I went berserk. Thomas and Andrew came flying over and Thomas leaned over the side and asked me if I was Wayne Bergstrom. I did see the funny side of it. It was like, I’ll be anyone you want me to be right now.

‘They pulled me into the boat and I huddled between them. All I wanted to do was go to sleep. I have never felt safer in my life.’

The radio communication from KYC electrified all who heard it. ‘Base, this is KYC. We have the casualty.’ ‘Confirm that the casualty is Wayne Bergstrom.’ ‘It is him.’

It was 16h03 when Graeme walked out of the radio shack and told Belinda her husband had been found, alive.

‘And that was it. She crumpled into a heap of tears on the ground. It was pretty emotional. It was pretty hectic,’ Graeme recalls.

Wayne was transferred to the bigger rescue boat for the journey back through the Heads, and then taken to hospital by ER24. He was severely hypothermic and dehydrated, and secondary drowning was a real threat. He spent three days recovering in ICU where the head of the unit, Emily Burgess, also a Sea Rescue volunteer, helped him recover.

On Friday 3 April, after his discharge from hospital, Wayne met the rescue crew. He was presented with his boat, which had been found miles from the search area. According to Ray Farnham, if they had spotted the boat when they were looking for Wayne, the search area would have been changed dramatically and Wayne would not have been found.

In another strange coincidence, Belinda’s grandfather had donated the land on which the Sea Rescue base was build in the 1960s. ‘Its amazing how that circle has come around,’ says Wayne.

Wayne Bergstrom is extremely fortunate to have survived. He went out to sea on his own. He was not wearing a life jacket, and his kill switch was not connected to his person, neither did he have his cellphone secured on his person in a waterproof bag. He is not alone in making these mistakes. Many people do this every time they head out to sea, and many of them have no idea how lucky they are that nothing goes wrong.

That Wayne Bergstrom, a 40-year-old developer from Johannesburg, is able to tell his story, and has been given a second chance to be a husband and father, is due in no small way to his physical and mental strength in the face of total disaster. It is also due to a huge piece of luck and the dedication of the Knysna Sea Rescue volunteers who went way beyond the call of duty.

How did Wayne survive?

Dr Cleeve Robertson elaborates on the factors that aid casualties in the sea.

Sea conditions and the temperature of the water are clearly primary factors in determining whether someone will survive in the sea. The presence of floating aids and the physical and mental condition of the casualty are secondary but no less important factors.

In this case, being immersed in water of moderate temperature along the east coast was an advantage, but the same person in the Atlantic Ocean would not have survived. The lower the water temperature, the shorter the period of survival. I’ve had a case where seamen capsized off Dassen Island and the subsequent two-hour swim to shore resulted in the deaths of two of three initial survivors.

Water drains the body of heat 25 times faster than air, and movement through the water accelerates this loss. The advice is always to huddle or crouch and to stay as still as possible, but in practice this is not always easy to do. The survivor must weigh up the chances of being found against attempting to swim for shore. If there is a chance of climbing up onto a boat or floating object, the survivor should take it. Life jackets are an important factor and many victims perish simply because they didn’t fasten the jacket properly. Securing a life jacket in the water with cold hands can prove to be an impossible task, so doing it up properly before embarking on any water activity is very important.

Wind and rough seas also hamper survival. In conditions of constant spray, chop and winds, the survivor will cool quicker and is more likely to aspirate water and drown. In cold, rough climates, boats carry life jackets with hoods to protect individuals from this kind of exposure.

Physical condition is also important and the fitter and stronger the casualty, the greater their chances of resisting hypothermia. Body composition may likewise assist in resisting hypothermia, although body mass and fitness may not always match up. Perhaps, more importantly, mental strength and the will to overcome will result in survival.

Treading water can very quickly cause exhaustion. The survivor should float or swim slowly with minimum effort to conserve energy and reduce heat loss.

And wearing bright orange clothing or a life jacket will help the searchers to find survivors.

We’re always taught in the rescue discipline that search is an emergency – because at the end of that search is a human life… if you don’t search.

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