John Gamba and his wife Anika set out on their kayak from Cable Bay to do some fishing and explore the coastline around Pepin Island. But when conditions changed for the worse, they decided to head back.

“We had checked the weather and it was meant to be a fine day. In fact, it was a fine day, but conditions changed in the blink of an eye.

“I tried turning around to follow my wife, but my kayak seemed to be caught by the wind and tide. That’s when a freak wave knocked me out of the boat.”

John tried to get back into the kayak, but the waves kept tossing him out and ramming the boat into his head.

Worried he would be knocked unconscious, John grabbed hold of some nearby rocks.

“The shells on the rocks were tearing my hands and the waves kept pushing me under water. I knew if I let go, I would be smashed into the cliffs behind me, but I was quickly losing energy. That’s when I first realised how serious my situation was.”

John tried using his radio, but the device was not connected to his personal flotation device (PFD) and was swept away by a wave.

“That’s when I remembered — I still had my personal locator beacon (PLB).”

John pressed the button on his PLB, sending out a distress call that conveyed his location to emergency services.

“I really don’t think I would be here today if I didn’t have that PLB,” John said.

John was shortly rescued by helicopter and airlifted to Nelson Hospital where he was reunited with his wife. He now wants to encourage people to plan, expect the unexpected, and carry the right equipment. 

“If I can just get five kayakers to buy a PLB after hearing my story, it will all have been worth it,” John said.

“Next time, I will be more prepared. I will have a lanyard for the radio, a flare, a PLB for my wife to have on her person, and I’ll be getting another one for myself.

“We will also start doing briefings together before getting out on the water. We will check each other’s gear, establish a contingency plan and review it before going out.”

The next day, Port Nelson Deputy Harbour Master Stuart Whitehouse found a group of kayakers with no emergency equipment close to where John had almost drowned. 

“These kayakers are so incredibly lucky given what John experienced the day before,” Stuart said.
“If the roles were reversed, I am afraid they wouldn’t have survived.

“I really hope John’s story encourages people to take things a little more seriously when they are out on the water. It’s crucial to have a plan and the right gear. It really could be the difference between life and death.” 

For more information about water safety or to check conditions, visit the Port NelsonMaritime NZ, or Coastguard NZ websites.