Kaitangata pupils picked up life and water safety tips from a uniquely experienced voice last week.
Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) spokesman Rob Hewitt was at Kaitangata Primary School last Thursday to give pupils, staff and parents a talk about water safety and life resilience, drawn from his career on and in the water.
He said developing a resilient mindset began in his Hawke’s Bay childhood in a community losing touch with its Maori heritage, and developed as his younger brother Norman’s fame as an All Black sometimes eclipsed other family achievements.
‘‘That’s part of the reason I chose to become a navy diver,’’ he said.
‘‘It had six months’ intensive training and I wanted to prove I could make it as part of an elite team.’’
At 18, straight from high school, Mr Hewitt joined the Royal New Zealand Navy, in which he enjoyed a 20-year career. However, not all was smooth sailing. A dramatic near-death experience shaped his current career advocating for water safety.
In 2007 he was on an informal sea-food diving expedition as part of his transition from military diving to civilian diving.
‘‘These guys didn’t bother with some of the good habits we had in the navy and I wanted to fit in and impress them,’’ he said.
At 15m underwater he entered a canyon crawling with crayfish and when he surfaced with four big kina and a cray he found the canyon current had swept him about 600m from the dive boat, which was sailing away.
So began a 75-hour ordeal of survival in open water which carried him from sight of Kapiti Island near Wellington, 72 nautical miles to sight Mt Taranaki — and back again.
He tried to signal aircraft to keep occupied and sustain hope, became delusional from dehydration and hallucinated — conversing with his kina and crayfish before reluctantly eating them raw.
Threatened by a shark, he had to learn to resign to fate to save energy, and began at last preparing himself to slip away via hypothermia.
When finally rescued by fellow navy divers he had put on about 20kg due to saltwater osmosing into his body, and his only care in the world was for a drink of water.
‘‘I’ve given this talk at about 600 schools,’’ Mr Hewitt said.
‘‘It’s my opportunity to not only help people stay safe around water but pass on what I learned about mental resilience, the power to hold on to hope and survive anything.’’
Mr Hewitt said research showed most drowning casualties occurred when people were gathering kaimoana. In addition, 20-30 lives could be saved each year if wearing life-jackets was mandatory.