Thirty kilometres off the coast of New Zealand, HMNZS Wanaka received the first report of the earthquake. A few moments later a satellite picked up the first indication that a tsunami had been triggered. It was already three meters high and running directly towards the New Zealand coast.
“It’s picking up speed, Sir,” one of the crewmen reported without taking his eyes off a monitor on the console. “ETA is eight minutes.”
“We have it on radar, Sir,” another crewmember said.
Lieutenant Doug McClay grunted. It would have to be close to fifteen metres in height and within twenty-five kilometres for their own equipment to pick it up. It was coming in faster than the computer predictions from the satellite. He was a professional, though, and didn’t hesitate.
A siren sounded and his voice echoed through out the boat “Now hear this. Code Red Tsunami Alert. All crew are to report to their emergency stations in full safety attire. Material condition yoke…”
Other orders were issued. There was a sound of feet as the crewmembers out on deck or off duty responded. Executive Officer Kim Hesterwood stood and left the bridge. It was her responsibility to see all crewmembers were accounted for and the vessel made secure. Within seconds every crewmember was inside and the exterior hatches closed. A wave could now crash over the patrol boat without any water getting inside.
“ETA, four minutes, Sir.” the original crewman reported. “She’ll be close to fifteen metres high and over twenty kilometres wide.”
“Satellite reports two smaller waves half a kilometre astern the main one, Sir.”
“Turn into the sea,” McClay ordered. “Get ready for maximum power on my order.” The pilot nodded. This manoeuvre had been practiced many times.
“Visual sighting, Sir.”
McClay stared out over the bow. The incoming tsunami heading directly towards them appeared as dirty brown wall. “Full power, Clive,” he ordered.
The pilot nodded and he pushed the twin throttles forward. With a howl, the diesel engines responded, the bow lifted and wake surged out behind the accelerating craft.
Orders were crisp and responses immediate as the hissing wave and patrol boat headed for each other at a speed in excess of two hundred kilometres an hour.
Kim screwed the last hatch tight and was about to step back down the small steel ladder when she felt the boat increase power. She gripped a handhold and only had time to catch the eyes of a crewman beneath her when the bow lifted. In the confined interior the roar of the engines and the shuddering steel, the executive officer could only hang on until the wave passed. Once they reached the crest, she knew the pilot would cut throttles and they would drop into the following trough, if there was one. The whole manoeuvre would be repeated for any subsequent waves. As long as they hit the tsunami head on they would be able to ride it out.
The engines screamed and bulkhead shuddered. Without warning an unexpected noise filled the companionway. It was a sort of rasping clunk followed by a screaming tearing noise. The patrol boat tilted to starboard in a violent move that flung Kim across the ladder and into a crossbeam. Stars crossed her vision.
She had no time to notice that blood poured down her face for more happened. A mountain of white water hurtled down the companionway. The boat wobbled and continued to tilt. The water reached Kim’s companion and the man would have been swept away if she hadn’t grabbed him. Seconds later water swirled around the pair and rose in a torrent.
Thoughts rushed into Kim’s mind. Water had broken through and the Wanaka was sinking. There was no way back to the others. Above her was the hatch she’d only closed seconds before and below the terrified face of one of the youngest crewmembers. Water surged up to his armpits. In seconds his head would be under.
“Seaman Jarred, there’s been a breach. We’re going out. Follow me!”
She reached up unscrewed the hatch and, expecting to meet a mountain of water, she pushed it. Two other hands grabbed the heavy hatch and helped push it up. Spray hit Kim’s face but she noticed a patch of sky.
Whether they had committed the other thirteen crewmembers to a watery grave in those dreadful seconds, Kim never knew. She glanced back to see water shooting out of the hatch, not into it. At least using the hatch was vindicated. The whole lower decks must be flooded. She pulled herself up onto deck and helped the sailor behind her.
“Jump, Barry!” she screamed.
Barry Jarret did just that. The pair hit freezing water. Lifejackets kept their heads above water and the momentum carried them away from the Wanaka.
Kim blinked to remove salty water from her eyes and gasped.
She could see the Wanaka but not in any position it should be. Its stern was vertical with the propellers spinning in the air. The hull sort of groaned and the patrol boat slid beneath the following wave.
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