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‘We won’t stop until he’s found’

David Downer planning his search for Koyren Campbell along the Wairarapa coast. PHOTO/JOHN LAZO-RON

David Downer is on a mission … to find Koyren Campbell, whatever it takes. And on Saturday, he was hoping the Wairarapa coast would be kind and return Koyren to his family so he can finally rest in peace. Emergency reporter JOHN LAZO-RON writes.

David Downer, from Wellington, is the owner D-Fluff Insulation, and the boss of missing Wellington kayaker Koyren Campbell.

Koyren Campbell. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Koyren was first reported missing on January 17, after his kayak was found floating in the water at Tarakena Bay on Wellington’s south coast with freshly caught fish inside.

The search for Koyren was suspended two weeks ago, with police saying they believed Koyren to no longer be alive.

However, despite official search and rescue efforts being put on hold, that hasn’t stopped Downer from going out and conducting his own search for the 22-year-old, after he first heard he went missing.

“When I found out there was a kayak missing on that day, I had that funny feeling it was Koyren,” Downer said.

“I rung him, and there was no answer.

“Later that night, when I got that call from the family, that’s when it really hit.

“I didn’t sleep well that night but made a decision to make it my mission to help his family find him, so I started searching by just walking along [the coast].

“Even when the weather was atrocious.”

Since then, Downer, along with hundreds of others, has searched along Wellington’s and Wairarapa’s coastline with motorcycles, jetskis, and drones, with the cost coming out of their own pockets.

At the weekend they were out again searching from Castlepoint in Wairarapa up to Blackhead on Hawkes Bay coastline in hope of finding Koyren’s body.

Downer said he had been taken aback by the response from the Wairarapa community with farmers opening up their land to give searchers access to remote areas along the coast, along with accommodation.

“People have been fantastic,” he said.

“People have offered us drones, they’ve offered us keys to gates along these farms on the coast, and a place to sleep.

“I was going to sleep in the back of the van and somebody said, hey, we’ve got a spare bach here, it’s nice and tidy, you’re more than welcome to use it.

“We can’t take our hats off enough to them and even strangers who have said they would keep their eye out.”

Although the initial response to search for Koyren was immense, Downer said numbers had decreased dramatically, which he put down to people being tired and giving up on Koyren being found.

“Overall, it’s been draining,” he said.

“Trying to do everything is draining; trying to look after my workers and keep my business operating is draining. It’s just draining knowing he’s out there and we can’t do much more.

“People have just given up, and that’s the tragic thing about it and for me and his family when we just want to bring him home.”

Although he understands the health implications the search has had on others and himself, when asked how long he’ll keep searching, he said, “until he comes home. We won’t stop until he’s found”.

“It’s a big wide ocean, it’s massive out there, and we can only search so much before people get exhausted. Trust me, I’m exhausted, but I won’t stop until I bring Koyren home to his family.”

If the search proved to be unsuccessful, Downer said he would take the search to the South Island.

In the wake of the tragedy, Wairarapa Police Search and Rescue [SAR] Incident Controller Tony Matheson, said people needed to take a firm look at themselves and be more vigilant when it came to safety in the water.

“What many people don’t realise is that when things go bad in the water, they go bad quickly,” he said.

“If someone goes into the water and they disappear, there is no guarantee they’ll be found.

“The ocean’s a big place, it takes, sometimes it gives back, sometimes it doesn’t.

“We’ve had at least three people who are still missing from Wairarapa over the last few years.

“So, the things that can make a difference when you get into trouble on the water are the safety gear.”

The safety gear Matheson was referring to included locater beacons, strobe lights, and waterproof VHF radios.

“These are the stuff you need when getting into the water and make a big difference for us locating people when they do go missing,” he said.

“Think about a strobe light for your wetsuit or your dive bag.

“We get a lot of people diving along the Wairarapa coastline, especially towards the evening in the dusk because that’s best time to dive, so a strobe light for a diver is an excellent thing.

“During the day if you get swept out to sea, and it’s all rough, it’s very hard to see a small light like that, but we’ll continue searching at night and we can pick up a strobe light from miles away.

Matheson said people on boats tended to carry a base-set VHF marine radio and locater beacons but said there were handheld waterproof VHF marine radios available that could be used by people in kayaks and canoes also.

“Locater beacons are also vital because if you go missing, a locater beacon in the water is going to give us a direct go to as to where exactly you are.”

Such equipment can be costly, but Matheson encouraged water-dwellers to fork out for the gear because in perspective, it was a small price to pay for your life.

“A lot of these people are already spending so much on wetsuits, kayaks, fish finders, and the rest of it,” he said.

“Some will spend $1500 on a flash fishing reel; that’s not going to save them.

“So when you’re thinking about all that gear, just budget a little more and think about what you’re going to take.

“Throw an extra grand on and think about all the other stuff.

“The more the person can do to attract us to them, the better it is.

“You may never use it, it may just sit there forever and ever, but the time you want it you will not regret having spent that money on it.”

Matheson led the official search response for Koyren along the Wairarapa coastline after the 22-year-old was first reported missing. With the search having spread from Wellington to the Wairarapa coast,

Matheson mentioned how crucial time was in keeping a search within a small radius which helped to locate someone easier.

“Marine SAR is time-critical,” he said.

“The longer we’re out searching, the more the tide, the current, and the wind will move.

“That means the search area tends to grow bigger and bigger, and with the majority of the Wairarapa coastline full of complicated reef systems, it makes it more difficult to locate someone.

“Sometimes, there’s a delay in the response, so the shorter you can make that delay, the better.

“If all that can be done, it becomes a rescue not a search.”

“Generally speaking, we try to target the best tide – which would generally be a low tide because it exposes the reef systems – the best light, and best weather conditions.”

“I’ve done a couple of aerial searches of the coastline and it is very busy to look at. There is so much, therefore it makes it very difficult.”

He also said letting people know where you’re going and what time you’ll be back from your water endeavours was also crucial in making their search and rescue operations easier.

“What definitely helps us in a search comes down to whether someone missing has left intentions with people.

“If they let people know where they’re going and they’ve got a due back time, the alarm can be raised if they don’t return.

“Whether you’re going surfing, diving, rock fishing or going out in your boat, certainly a list of intentions as to where you’re going.

“Let people know what sort of equipment you’ve got and where your vehicle is going to be parked. This sort of information is going to help us to be able to start working straight away.”

One of the lucky ones – two years on
The Belandres family, from left, Ken, Kathleen, Kevin, Jennifer, and Rex. PHOTOS/FILE

Rex Belandres has loved the water since he can remember, but it has also become a joy he at times fears after being rescued from the water off a remote Wairarapa coast two years ago.

On January 10, 2019, Belandres, from Paraparaumu, had been holidaying with his family at Glenburn Station in Carterton.

He had ventured out to the sea on his kayak to empty a cray pot in the morning.

He then got caught in torrid conditions that drifted him 16km further out to sea with his kayak capsizing more than 20 times.

A search and rescue effort was sparked after his daughter Kathleen – who had been watching from the shore – went and alarmed emergency services after she initially couldn’t get to him on a jet ski.

After spending more than two hours in the water, he was eventually rescued by fisherman Dugald Cameron of Pahaoa Station in South Wairarapa.

Although this happened two years ago, Belandres said he still remembered the traumatic experience like it was yesterday.

“I still remember it clearly,” Belandres said.

“When I’m out on the water on the jet ski, sometimes a wave will get bigger, and I always remember what happened to me and it brings some anxiety.

“That memory isn’t going to go away quickly.”

Belandres, originally from the Philippines, recalled how things happened and said his ordeal was a stern reminder of how things in the water could change in an instant and how difficult it could be to be rescued, even when close to the shore.

John and Helen McFadzean bring Rex Belandres off the fishing boat that rescued him in 2019.

“I went out to check my cray pot and was going to use my jet ski,” he said.

“But because it was calm, I decided to use my kayak because it was only about 150m away.

“Suddenly, the wind changed, and I started falling out of my kayak. I kept trying to get back in but kept falling back in the water.”

Holding on to his cray pot, he eventually threw it away and began to paddle back to shore.

However, the ferocious waves kept pushing him back out, which ultimately wore him out.

“I saw the rescue helicopter and waved, but it was a waste of time because they couldn’t see me.

“I got tired and kept thinking it would be better to be lost in the bush rather than the sea,” he said.

He was eventually spotted and rescued by Cameron, who had spoken to Kathleen, who pointed him in the direction Belandres had gone out.

Now, Belandres – who said he was thankful for the effort to save his life as the conditions got worse on the day – still goes out to the sea, but under different circumstances.

“I only go into the water on my jet ski and with a friend now,” he said.

“I still have little fears, so I always make sure I tell my family when I go, and when my kids use the jet ski, I always stand on the beach watching them too.

“But my wife always gets annoyed with me when I go into the water as she still worries about it.

Asked if he would get into the water with a kayak ever again, Belandres quipped, “My wife won’t let me buy one.”

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