Auckland surfer who wrote ‘HELP’ on West Coast beach reveals Hollywood movie inspired rescue plea

HELP surfer with wife and week old daughter. Ben Searancke, Jenny Brown and Sylvie Hariata Searancke (8 days old today) Picture taken on 18 February 2021 Photo/Supplied

In his last moments of consciousness after being smashed against Auckland’s west coast rocky ocean cliffs for three hours, Ben Searancke admits he resorted to the survival guide of a Tom Hanks movie.

Remembering the Hollywood film Cast Away he watched a few weeks earlier he ploughed “HELP” in the sand on Auckland’s Mercer Bay. And then he fainted.

His legs were gashed to the bone and his lungs clogged with sea water. He had tied a surfboard leash around one leg as an improvised tourniquet.

The father to a week-old baby spoke to the Herald on Sunday about his ordeal on February 17 when he went for a surf at deserted Karekare Beach.

“Honestly it was because I watched Cast Away. I’m serious,” Searancke said of his desperate scrawl in the sand.

“Kiwis are Kiwis, I know that they might just walk past and I was desperate. If they just walked past I would be stuffed so I thought if I wrote HELP and they were looking at me, surely that’ll engage them enough to do something.”

For the three hours before he managed to make it to the beach, Searancke had been struggling in the heaving water, pounded against the rocks between Karekare Beach and Mercer Bay.

His leg-leash had snapped off his surfboard while duck-diving under a large wave shortly after paddling out around 11am.

“I wasn’t panicking really because I thought I could make my way in,” he said.

Ben Searancke wrote "HELP" in sand at Mercer Bay on Auckland's West Coast before feinting. 17 February 2021.
Ben Searancke wrote “HELP” in sand at Mercer Bay on Auckland’s West Coast before feinting. 17 February 2021.

“Then I put my head up and I was 500 metres around the northern end, which was nothing but rock. I tried to start swimming back towards Karekarei but I just couldn’t.

“I was looking around and all I could see was just swell hitting rocks and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to swim back around.”

It soon dawned on the 43-year-old how much trouble he was in.

“I had nothing. I was in the middle of the ocean. No beach in sight. No people in sight. Then getting pushed towards rocks with heavy water,” he said.

“A wave just grabbed me and threw me against the rocks and I covered my head and got scratches all over my body but I felt my leg get a really bad bang. I think eventually I managed to climb up and I looked down at my leg and my bone was showing on my right hand side.”

Searancke said he spent an hour or so up on the rocks to rest, but he was still stranded and unable to get beyond the cliffs.

His bleeding leg getting “really bad” so he used his surfboard leg-rope, which was still strapped to his ankle, as an improvised tourniquet.

“[I was] bleeding and getting pretty cold, and every time I thought I was nearly there, there was like a point between rocks where you couldn’t make it around,” he said

“So I had to make a call to try and swim across. I looked at the waves, timed it, and I looked at a point on the first one and I went I’ve just got to go.”

The effort scrambling from rock to rock and swimming from point to point almost ended with Searancke drowning.

“I got smashed against the rocks, on top of my head. I felt a bit dizzy, I was held down for long enough to start thinking this is it, it’s definitely over, and then I struggled to get back up,” he said.

“That time my brain was definitely going. I could see my daughter, I could see my missus and I was going ‘this is it’.

“Then I finally made it round to Mercer Beach and then I kind of realised s**t, there’s no one here. I don’t even know if there’s a way out of here. I started to feel like I was going to faint.”

Mercer Bay is surrounded by steep, unforgiving terrain. Photo / Supplied
Mercer Bay is surrounded by steep, unforgiving terrain. Photo / Supplied

Mercifully, Searancke thought he noticed some people walking along the coast hilltop tracks in the distance.

“I wasn’t sure if my mind was playing tricks with me but I was sure I could see someone waving because I was waving so hard,” he said.

“But they weren’t really looking so I just started screaming and waving my arms. Then I could sort of see them wave back but it was more like they were just saying ‘hey’.

“Honestly I had watched this movie Cast Away two weeks ago and he wrote help in the sand. I did it as good as I could, and then literally as I got the P, I collapsed, trying to stay conscious.”

Friends Dace Kalnina and Vanessa Ingraham spotted the injured surfer on a secluded beach and raised the alarm. Photo / Supplied
Friends Dace Kalnina and Vanessa Ingraham spotted the injured surfer on a secluded beach and raised the alarm. Photo / Supplied

The pair Searancke alerted were Karekare locals Vanessa Ingraham, 36, and her friend Dace Kalnina, 32, who were hiking on a coastal track.

Kalnina said they only realised Searancke was in real trouble once he finished the P in the sand.

“We shouted at him but because we were so high up and it was windy we couldn’t really understand what anybody was shouting back but he did see us and he was waving back,” Kalnina said.

“He waved at us back while he lay down on the sand so that’s when we realised it was serious.”

With the women’s help, surf lifesavers from the United North Piha Surf Club arrived around 4pm and transported to hospital where he remained getting stitched up until 1am the next morning.

“There’s stitches in both legs. I’m happy to be alive but I’m in a lot of pain,” Searancke said.

“I haven’t slept a lot. I didn’t sleep at all last night for the pain, that’s why I went back [to the hospital] this morning [Saturday]. So they’ve put me on really heavy meds. I’m sweating like a maniac.”

Despite all this, relief is the overwhelming emotion in Searancke’s Mt Albert home as he recovers alongside wife Jenny Brown and 9-day-old daughter Sylvie Hariata.

“She [Jenny] was just worried. We’ve got so much stuff to look forward to,” he says.

“We’re building a house in Mt Albert, we’re building a bach in Whangamata, we’ve got a new daughter, we’ve got so much to look forward to and she’s just happy I’m alive.”

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