How easy it can happen…
  |  First Published: September 2007

During a recent fishing trip to the top end, (a regular pilgrimage) we were to end up with a survival experience that will remain with us all forever.

I would like to tell the story from go to whoa. Now this will make it a little long but I hope that, if nothing else, we have encouraged someone to add a few extra checks and measures to their lists before heading out to catch a feed.

The three of us, Danny, Peter and myself head off fishing in Darwin every year for the June Queen’s Birthday long weekend. We have been doing this for many, many years, some successful some not, but all sensational fun and comradeship.

Our mate in Darwin, Danny, has a lovely boat, about 15-16ft aluminium open boat with a 40hp Honda four-stroke outboard tiller steer. All in all a pretty typical Darwin type fishing boat – practical, functional and economical.

This year we decided to change things a little and extend the trip by a week, this allowed us to complete the four days fishing for Barra in the billabong, and then go on to do some reef and ocean fishing in some of the best fishing waters in the world.

Our destination for the extra trip was Point Stuart, about a 2-3hr drive from Darwin heading east and then out to the coast. The place we booked to stay at had just opened for business that week, and the accommodation options were self-contained cabins or tent sites. We chose the cabins and I must say they were terrific.

We arrived around lunchtime and unpacked the Ute and the boat as soon as possible. We soon got ourselves ready for a few hours fishing that same afternoon. The place had a very good boat ramp, but as with a lot of places in the top end, the ramp is only accessible a couple of hours either side of high tide. This day the high tide was to be around 4.30pm so we figured we could put the boat in around 2.30pm then fish until just before dark and then head back to the cabin for a few beers and unpack properly.

After a brief chinwag with the caretaker we threw the esky, some rods and bait into the boat and set off on the water around 2pm.

Everything was going great, we headed about 7km straight out to a spot we had been told about and got stuck into some big jewies straight off. After getting two nice fish we decided to fillet them and pack them in the esky on ice, before going in search for some golden snapper.

We headed about 1/2km north to another spot we were given and this time we drifted a little. Again we were onto fish and got about 10 good keepers between the 3 of us in reasonably quick time. There were many little sharks around too and we must have caught and released at least 10 of the little toothy buggers. We all noticed a big shark swimming around about 100m from the boat. I must say it looked like something from the movies, with a BIG fin (my guess around 18” to 2’ high) protruding out of the water she just cruised around for about 15 minutes to half an hour. I couldn’t tell what sort of shark it was but I could tell it was a giant one.

We decided that it was time to head back to the boat ramp prior to it getting too dark, so we cleaned up the fishing deck, packed up the lines and the bait, tidied up and set off.

The conditions had been terrific all afternoon with about 5-knot winds and a maximum of 2ft swell, but now it was starting to pick up a little.

We were cruising along at about 35-knots with Danny on the tiller, and us sitting on seats up the front. Then the boat caught in the smallest of swells and to all of our surprise we jerked a little to one side. What happened next was the most terrifying situation I have ever experienced.

The seat that Danny was sitting on collapsed out from under him (best guess, is that the swivel mechanism gave way). When the seat collapsed he was thrown sideways onto the tiller arm. This caused the boat to go to full lock while travelling at speed, thus causing the front of the boat to dig in and flip over.

The first thing I recall was getting caught up in the spinning propeller with my shirt and my arm. My shirt was dragged into the prop and ultimately caused the motor to choke and stop. This caused me to be stuck in the prop too, so when the boat continued to roll over, it dragged me under the water with it. I could see the surface but I couldn’t get to it.

I distinctly remember my thoughts at the time. “I don’t want to die like this, NO, get the shirt off, don’t die!”

Somehow, I did get my shirt off, (adrenalin is an amazing thing, luckily for me) I got back to the surface and there I found Danny and Peter hanging on to the bottom of the upturned boat. After a couple of seconds (which seemed like a lot longer) we took stock of our situation and set about seeing where we were at and what we had. Peter decided to dive under and into the boat to find the EPIRB and the lifejackets.

When he returned to the surface, all he had were 3 of the block foam type lifejackets and a dolphin torch!

It appears the EPIRB, which was in a box with the flares, was thrown from the boat when it violently flipped. In fact everything was thrown out – including the false floor.

So here we were, bobbing about in the middle of the ocean, hanging onto the bottom of an aluminium boat (let me tell you there isn’t much to grip onto) no-one expecting us back, the worst lifejackets in the world and me with just a pair of shorts on and bleeding from where my arm went into the prop. And now it was getting dark.

We crawled to one side of the boat and rolled it over so that it was floating right way up, albeit only the nose and about 2m were actually out of the water. This worked okay for a while but the seas were getting rougher, with the swell about 1-2m and the wind about 20-knots. It is amazing how, although we were in the tropics, just how cold it got. We guessed the wind chill was around 5oC and when suffering shock there was a fair bit of shivering going on.

We realized that the fuel tank (plastic) was still attached to the boat by the fuel line. We decided it was a good idea to empty the fuel out of it and use it as an additional floatation device. The idea was good but the procedure was bad.

No-one thought of the fact that petrol is heavier than water, so the fuel sank down around Danny. His shirt and shorts soaked up a fair bit of the fuel and of course then he started to get chemical burning! He too was now shirtless in the freezing conditions.

The boat was being tossed around by the sea and no matter what we tried it rolled over again, this time nearly catching us underneath. We decided it was too dangerous to try rolling it again so we all huddled as close to the hull as we could and just waited till morning. I have to say that this was one of the longest nights of my life – I thought my watch had stopped on several occasions as time was going that slow. And of course we were exhausted, cold and scared.

I know that I remembered the shark from earlier in the day on many occasions that night, the whole time conscious that I was bleeding (slowly now) into the water.

The three of us talked together all night, not three minutes went past that we didn’t do a roll call and make sure we were all okay. It is amazing the things you think about at a time like that – I know I promised lots of things to lots of people, if only we could get through this alive.

All night we were using the dolphin torch to try and SOS anything that looked like a plane overhead or anything that looked like lights in the distance. This only achieved in taking our mind off things a little.

By morning, I realised as did the others, that we had to do whatever we could ourselves. We had to assume that no-one would be looking for us anytime soon.

The sun finally came up, though it was at least 9am before we could feel its warmth at all.

We then came up with a plan. We had to right the boat and somehow get it floating. It was decided that, as I was relatively restricted by my injuries that Danny and Peter would do most of the strength work.

We tied the empty fuel tank to the bottom of the boat at the transom end, this helped to alleviate the weight of the outboard. Then we rolled it over so it was the correct way up. Then Danny and Peter swam around to the bow and by pulling it down into the water, they managed to get the stern up and out of the water. I was in the boat and by removing the top off the dolphin torch and removing the battery, I discovered a pretty handy bailer so I began bailing as fast as possible while the others basically held the boat up out of the water. This was an incredible task as it took at least an hour of bailing to get the boat to the point where it had some buoyancy of its own.

At that time we were able to get Peter into the boat. With me still using the new bailer, I also managed to attach the torch battery to the boats bilge pump and although slow, that too was getting rid of water, Peter took the top off the outboard and used it as a huge bailer. It took about another hour to get the rest of the water out of the boat and get us all on board.

At this time I let myself consider that we might actually live through this.

At the time of the boat rolling over, the anchor had been flung into the water and as the end was tied on, we were basically anchored. After checking on the tidal movement and estimating the timing of the next tide, we considered the wind direction and decided that at the turn of the tide we would lift the anchor.

The intention was that with the incoming tide and the northeast winds, we would be drifting toward the land. And by using their hands the other two paddled from the back as well. It was slow going but we were going in the right direction.

The sun was absolutely belting us now, we had no cover, no hats and no shirts so we were really getting burned big time. Nothing we could do about it, and I can assure you none of us was getting back into the water. After paddling for about 3 hours or so and probably gaining about 2-3km we could finally see in the distance the boat ramp where our car was. It was still about 3km away but we could see it.

The tide was coming in, so we were hoping that someone would be down soon to go fishing them-selves.

About 4 or 5 o’clock a boat finally did come down, and when they started out we all stood high in the boat and waved the lifejackets as high as we could.

We were seen! We were saved!

Many things went through all of our minds while we were lost at sea and there have been lots of things I have already attended to upon getting home.

Firstly, the two guys I was with, Danny and Peter are probably the best friends I could ever hope to have, they were sensational, hardworking and didn’t give up at any point during the whole ordeal. I know that each and every one of us owes his life to the other…thanks, fellas.

I would like to thank the people who make the ‘Dolphin’ torch, I don’t know whether they know it, but it does make a sensational bailer when stripped apart. They should somehow include that in their features and benefits.

When I got home, I went to my own boat and took out the $15 block foam lifejackets that I had on board, and threw them in the bin. I would never be in a boat in the ocean with them as the main jacket again.

Not only do they offer zero protection, but also every time you try and move with one on, they choke around your neck and chest and really I believe they are more of a hindrance than help.

I also ensured that my EPIRB is securely attached to the boat structure within easy reach of the driver. I am now amazed at how many people I have met that have the EPIRB in a box like we did

I have fitted an extra radio to my boat and will not venture out anywhere in future without advising someone of where and who we are, and when we will return.

Fishing is still a huge love in my life, but so is living.

To anyone who cares to read this, always and I mean always let someone know where you are going and when you will be back – no exceptions. It isn’t a very nice feeling thinking that no-one knows you are in big trouble. – David White

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