Reflections on Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race rescue - 21 years on

Published on Ms Natalie Staples (author)

Location(s): Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

Topic(s): Operations, Search and Rescue (SAR)

L-R: Warrant Officer Brian ‘Shane Pashley’; John ‘Steamer’ Stanley; Commander Richard Neville; Steve Hamilton former Commanding Officer of HMAS Newcastle; and Director and CEO of the Maritime Museum Kevin Sumption. (photo: )
L-R: Warrant Officer Brian ‘Shane Pashley’; John ‘Steamer’ Stanley; Commander Richard Neville; Steve Hamilton former Commanding Officer of HMAS Newcastle; and Director and CEO of the Maritime Museum Kevin Sumption.

Twenty-one years after they plucked yachtsmen to safety during the tragic 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, two Navy aviators reconnected with one of the sailors they saved at the opening of a new exhibition.

Commander Rick Neville and Warrant Officer Brian ‘Shane’ Pashley attended the opening of the ‘Sydney to Hobart 75 Years’ exhibition at the Australian National Maritime Museum and were reunited with John ‘Steamer’ Stanley.

Steamer was sailing on Winston Churchill when during the fateful race it was hit by a rogue wave caused by a massive cyclonic depression and sunk.

The yacht’s crew evacuated into two life rafts. Sadly, three of the crew perished after their life raft flipped and they were swept away.

Commander Neville was the flight commander and tactical co-ordinator and Warrant Officer Pashley was the aircrewman and rescue swimmer of Tiger 75, a Seahawk helicopter, which was tasked to identify a light source, 80 nautical miles south east of Merimbula.

On scene, the crew found two men in the remains of a life raft in 30-40 knot winds and a 10 metre swell. Steamer, with a broken ankle and torn tendons in his hip, had spent 28 hours adrift in the Southern Ocean.

Warrant Officer Pashley was winched in darkness to rescue the first injured man. After reaching the raft and attaching the strop to the injured sailor, the aircraft’s auto pilot malfunctioned, dragging Warrant Officer Pashley and the yachtsman 50 metres through the sea. It was another 15 minutes before they were winched to safety.

The crew, realising the increased danger, rescued Steamer, the second yachtsman, in a single lift.

Reflecting on the mission, Commander Neville said it was one of the more challenging flight moments from across his 40 year career. 

“I remember it being black and the aircraft moving around quite violently, warning lights and sounds were going off left right and centre and Shane was in the water,” Commander Neville said.

“Normally the aircraft sat on a steady 60 foot above the water. Huge waves ranging from 30-120 foot were rolling through, so the automatic flight control system had difficulty maintaining the hover.”

“When the system went offline, it made it difficult to hover over the survivors and Shane.”

“We had to adapt and overcome to the challenge. While you train for these type of circumstances - those extreme conditions were off the chart,” Commander Neville said.

“Even getting back to Merimbula was a challenge, we had to come in at 100 foot over water and around headlands using the radar, instruments and all the aircraft’s excellent systems to make an approach to the airfield.”

Reuniting with Steamer for the first time in 20 years and seeing Tiger 75 at the Maritime Museum was a special moment for Commander Neville, whose 40 year Navy career draws to a close this month.

“It was great to see Tiger 75 there and to catch up with Steamer and to hear how the rest of the guys from the Winston Churchill are going,” Commander Neville said.

“It certainly brings back a lot of memories.”

The 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race claimed six lives and destroyed 12 boats.

For their efforts, Warrant Officer Pashley received a Bravery Award and Commander Neville was amongst the crew that received a group Bravery Award. 

Tiger 75 is on permanent display at the Australian National Maritime Museum and also forms part of the ‘Sydney to Hobart 75 Years’ exhibition running until 28 February 2020.