Rescue drama at Port St Francis

The Sikelela, a chokka boat working from Port St Francis, ran aground on Wednesday 27 August at 07:41 while entering the Port.  The Sikelela ended up on the rocks and harbour wall dolos on the western side of Port St Francis.

The NSRI Station 21 St Francis Bay volunteer sea rescue duty crew were activated by the Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) who launched their sea rescue craft Spirit of St Francis II.  The TNPA Port Control also activated the private rubber duck from Balobi Processors, which was first on the scene.

The Sikelela, skippered by Hutch McKenna, had lost motor power as she was turning in towards entering the harbour entrance in 5 meter breaking swells and a 10 to 15 knot Westerly wind and was unable to take corrective action and had been engulfed by waves and forced onto the rocks with 13 crew onboard.


The Ricochet, skippered by Lafras Trotskie from Balobi Processors and assisted by Kevin Bremner, managed to rescue the first eight crewmen while the chokka boat was being swept ashore – before she hit the rocks and Dolos.

When the chokka fishing boat washed up against the rocks there were only 5 men remaining on Sikelela.

Only one crewman, the First Mate, managed to jump ashore onto rocks.  He was assisted by members of the public and escorted to paramedics as they arrived on-scene.

After Ricochet dropped the 8 crewman off on shore, she returned to the Sikelela to rescue one more crew and lastly the skipper.  The skipper was the last man to be rescued off the boat.

Both the Ricochet and Spirit of St Francis II were faced with the 5 meter breaking swells exiting the Port.  The Sikelela was battered by breaking swells crashing over the top of the boat.

The Spirit of St Francis II found the remaining crew hanging onto the side of the Sikelela, being battered by waves and clinging on for dear life.  The skipper was standing on the top of the boat and a large wave crashing over the boat caused him to fall, lacerating his right arm severely.

With no time to spare two NSRI rescue swimmers, Tantum Dace and Stuart Obrey, were deployed into the surf while coxswain of the sea rescue craft, Neil Jones, handed over the helm to Station Commander Marc May, so that Neil could direct the two rescue swimmers.

The rescue swimmers swam up to Sikelela and ordered the crew to jump into the water.  Both were dragged by the rescue swimmers, through huge breaking swells, while skipper Marc May timed the sets to bring the rescue craft into the danger zone, facing towards the waves and punching through the waves then managed to rescue both casualty men onto the rescue craft.  They were received by NSRI coxswain Neil Jones and NSRI crewman Sarah Smith and hauled onto the rescue boat while Station Commander Marc May punched the boat through the incoming wave sets.

By this stage the Ricochet had also returned to the scene, still with skipper Lafras Trotskie but now with shore skipper Short Humby on board, and they again managed, while timing the incoming sets, to bring their boat up against Sikelela to rescue the skipper.  The rescue was made difficult as the skipper had been wrapped up in fishing lines, debris and flotsam.

All were brought into Port St Francis and all five casualty crew that had been rescued off the chokka boat were handed into the care of paramedics.

The skipper, Hutch McKenna, was the last person to leave the Sikelela, only after he had confirmed that all of his crew were safely off the chokka boat.

Hutch McKenna received stitches to his right arm for a laceration but otherwise none of his 12 crew were injured and were only treated on-scene by paramedics for shock and some observation for secondary drowning.

The five crew that were rescued off Sikelela were also treated for being submerged in motor diesel fuel that was in the water spilled from the chokka boat.

NSRI Coxswain Neil Jones was deployed into the surf to attempt to put a tow-line to the casualty chokka boat but in the big swell the decision was taken to abort the effort and salvage companies will investigate the possibility of a salvage effort once the sea swell subsides.

Hutch McKenna, is a retired NSRI St Francis Bay coxswain.  The NSRI commended Station 21 as well as the crew of the Ricochet for saving the lives of the Sikelela crew in incredibly difficult sea conditions and made worse by debris, ropes and flotsam spewing out of the casualty boat and in the water around the boat.  Hutch is also commended for staying on his boat despite a severe laceration injury until ensuring all 12 of his crew were safe and out of harms way.

Source:  National Sea Rescue Institute

Photos:  Craston Wilson