We’ve sunk the Boat!

It was New Years Eve in 1995 when Mark Colys and Zane O’Brien phoned me up. They were camped at Park Beach Caravan Park, Coffs Harbour, for their annual holidays with family. Mark and Zane were keen for a dive on New Years Day.

I had met Mark down at the National Titles in Eden in 1994, one year earlier (which he won).  It was over 1,000kms drive each way to the Aussie Championships, so I talked my good mate Wally Gibbins from Sawtell into accompanying me for some companionship.

I was living at Sandy Beach, NSW, and the long drive to Eden was one never to be forgotten with Wally as Co-pilot, and Ted Lehman from Sydney also. The stories that Wally told us in great detail of his adventures in the Solomon Islands - how he salvaged all the scrap bronze propellers he could from wartime wrecks, to how he and the natives collected tons of both live and dead ammunition from the sea floor for sale – seemed to be both adrenalin filled, and endless. Wally was to spear-fishing, what Zane Grey was to game-fishing – a pioneer sportsman, avid storyteller, and adventurer the likes of which we may never see again on the planet.

Early New Years Day 1996, after having a quiet night, Mark and Zane picked me up, and we launched Marks’ 17R Haines Hunter at Arrawarra Beach soon after. It was a fairly uneventful, 18 mile trip out to North Solitary Island, on a flat sea, with thousands of acres of blue water around us. We were pumped up for a great days spearing, at one of the best locations in New South Wales.

On arrival on the north side of the Big Island around 9am, we tied up to a mooring that existed there, on the eastern side of the bay, just outside the ‘Bay of Anemones’. The buoy was located just 20 meters offshore, and with a short bowline tethered to it, the boat swung south towards the rocky shore, leaving the stern approximately 10 meters offshore. The wind was a slight NE breeze, and the swell moderate.

Conditions did not seem to justify any concern to the crew, so we geared up and jumped into the turquoise, warm water. Visibility was 20-25 meters and the fish life was in bountiful supply.

Mark and Zane swam west, around the western most corner, so I swam east and along the eastern side of the island. A southerly current carried me slowly along, and within an hour or so I found myself at the southern tip of the island. Deliberating on which was the best way to get back to the boat, swim inside the island out of the current or not, I hear someone calling out “Dave, we’ve sunk the boat”.

Looking up, I see Mark and Zane on the rear deck of a prawn trawler waving their arms madly and yelling. They call me over, and inform me that the boat has sunk at the mooring! Naturally, I thought they were joking, but quickly came to the realization that they would not be on someone else’s trawler if it were not true. As I swim out to the trawler, my mind races back to 1967, when I was marooned here on this very island for 3 days with 3 other spearos after the boat sunk!

Hastily I climbed aboard, and they give me the whole story. As we motor up the eastern side of the island, we see the Cooler box, an empty fuel tank, and other debris floating along the shore, and the reality of what they described started to sink in. We gathered what we could of the gear, and before long we were over the sunken boat. We all jumped in to survey the situation that Zane and Mark had found on their return, before swimming to the southern lee side of the island to awaken the trawler skipper for help in the predicament. They trawl all night in this area, and sleep out at the island to save fuel and time for the next night if the prawns are on.

Above the Haines, we could see it clearly, sitting vertically in 60-70 foot of water, with an air pocket holding the bow almost vertical as the motor bounced on and off the bottom with the gentle swell. We concluded later that the swell had allowed the water hitting the shore close by to bounce waves off the rocks, and the return swell had slopped over the transom filling the boat. There was a bilge pump fitted, but it was manually operated – not fitted with a float switch to activate it as water entered the boat to avoid flooding. Naturally it was not switched on when we left the boat, as a dry boat would quickly burn out the pump before long.

Mark dived down with a rope from the trawler, and tied it to the winch eye. Another dive saw him cut the rope to the mooring, and he signaled the trawler to take off in the hope the boat would surface.  Thankfully the boat rose up easily and broke the surface in the perfect planning position and started riding along almost horizontally. Water poured out over the stern as the trawler slowly motored along. As it went past Mark and Zane, they managed to climb aboard commando style, and started bailing with a bucket the trawler skipper then threw over to them. Before long, with the drain plugs out, and most of the water cleared from the inside, they got the bungs back in, and we retreated to the lee side of the island.

The trawler skipper could not have been more helpful, and made us coffee and biscuits to replenish our energy reserves.

We used the trawlers’ radio to call up the Woolgoolga Volunteer Sea Rescue in the hope that they would come out and tow the drowned Haines back to Arrawarra. But after explaining what had happened, they said that they are not allowed to do salvage work – even though the boat was now afloat but not running! There was no salvage needed I explained, but they were adamant that because it had sunk, it was deemed to be out of their scope of rescue! They suggested that we call the Coffs Harbour Water Police and see if they would help out with a tow back to shore.

I put in the call (being the ‘local guy’), and the water police said that as they were on call for real emergencies, but they would get there when they could. By this time it was around 1pm, and as the police boat had to travel from Coffs Harbour – some 30 miles or 48 kms. – we did not expect them until it was late evening. Thankfully they arrived around 3pm and commenced the tow back to Arrawarra.

A multitude of questions by the police ensued as we traveled back to shore. By 4pm we arrived at Arrawarra beach, when we were cast off the police boat and swam the now floating Haines into shore. After a struggle, we managed to get the boat onto the trailer for the drive back to Sandy Beach.

Once home, we removed the spark plugs, and with a new battery cranked the water out of the cylinders. Then we hosed off the engine and with fresh fuel got the engine started.  That was all we could do in the evening, so Mark and Zane went back to Coffs, packed up the family, and returned to Sydney post haste, to get the boat repaired professionally.

The lessons here: - don’t anchor or moor close to a shore breaking swell, have a bilge pump fitted with a float switch, and be sure the switch is on prior to leaving the boat.

Dave Birch. 2015