Earlier last Sunday morning, Zeb Critchlow and fellow surfer Luke Bugg launched their jet ski from the Boomer Bay boat ramp in south-east Tasmania.
The sun was not yet up but it was busy at the ramp — the surf at Marion Bay was pumping and, with little cloud or wind forecast, it seemed a good day for fishing.
As dawn broke, the two mates launched their jet ski and rode out to a spot off to the side of the break and began lowering the anchor when they heard calls for help from surfers already in the line-up.
“I said to Luke, ‘Something must be wrong. I think there is a shark’,” Mr Critchlow recalled.
“We sped over to everybody and they told us that a boat had just turned [over].”
Five-foot sets were closing out right across the channel — aka the Narrows — that links Boomer Bay to the Tasman Sea.
The pair saw an upturned boat trapped in the impact zone and sped towards it on their jet ski.
Mr Bugg then jumped aboard another boat while Mr Critchlow headed for the upturned vessel where he found two men clinging on.
“Both had Stormy [life] jackets on — one with the [jacket] inflated and the second person with the jacket uninflated,” he said.
“I yelled out to the two guys, ‘Who can swim and who can’t?’
“One guy coughed and spluttered, ‘I can’t swim’ and he was the one without his jacket inflated, so I swooped in on the jet ski, reversed in and he grabbed hold of the rescue sled that was on the back.”
Zeb Critchlow has mastered his jetski skills by pulling surfers into big waves and fetching them if they wipe out. (Supplied)
‘We had to punch through a six-foot wave’
Mr Critchlow dropped the man to one of the boats standing by and then went back for the second.
“By this stage he was holding onto the front of the boat rail and had taken a couple of waves on the head,” he said.
“He grabbed hold of the sled. I turned and noticed a large set wave coming in and told him to hold on.
“We had to punch through a six-foot wave. Luckily, the ski did not tip and we got out of there before the next five or six waves came in.
“I got him to the same boat I brought the first person to.”
At that point Mr Critchlow felt relieved, believing he had managed to help save two lives.
But then someone said there could be a third person trapped underneath the boat.
“This really changed the ball game becasue the boat was really getting hammered by waves,” Mr Critchlow said.
Zeb Critchlow and Tyler Hollmer-Cross team up to surf the huge waves of Shipstern Bluff. (Supplied: @onepalmmedia)
‘I came up for breath and saw a big set coming’
He knew he would need help, so he sped back to the line-up of surfers and grabbed his friend, Tyler Hollmer-Cross, a fellow big wave surfer he could trust with the jet ski, who jumped on the back before they returned to the upturned boat.
“We sped back over, I pulled off my life jacket and my vest and jumped off the jet ski and started swimming underneath the boat to try to see if I could feel somebody underneath,” he said.
“I couldn’t really feel anything. You can’t see anything without goggles.
“I came up for a breath then went back under, legs first, to just try to kick around, trying to hold onto the side of the boat so I didn’t get swept underneath it.”
A wave came through while Mr Critchlow was under the boat and the sun tarp flipped up and wrapped around him.
“I had to try to untangle myself to get out and that, and that panicked me a fair bit,” he said.
“I came up for another breath and then I noticed there was a big set coming. I had just enough time to reach across the dash of the boat to try to feel if the cabin door was open or closed.
“I got my hand stuck on a fishing lure which was attached to some line. Got tangled in that and had to try and pull that free, broke the line, then came back to the surface.”
Mr Hollmer-Cross, on the jet ski, yelled out, “Set wave!” and Mr Critchlow had to go under about five waves, pulled the lure out of his glove and jumped back onto the ski.
Chopper arrives and drops flare
Mr Critchlow said he was not certain whether there had actually been a third man aboard the boat because no-one had been clear on the situation.
“The guys that we pulled out of the water were in a lot of shock. They were very panicked. Nothing was was 100 per cent clear,” he said.
Mr Critchlow rode around on the jet ski for another 45 minutes to make sure there was no-one he had missed.
They then went and enjoyed the surf for the next few hours.
“We were pretty happy with our efforts. We were happy we rescued the two guys that were on the boat,” Mr Critchlow said.
Later, when a rescue helicopter turned up and dropped a flare — Mr Critchlow thought it must have been retrieving the sunken boat.
After their surf session, he stopped to talk to authorities on board a police boat and asked them if there was a third person.
They said yes.
“I said, ‘Thank God, you’ve got them then. They’re fine’ and then I was told that no, they had passed away,” he said.
“I was 99 per cent sure there was nobody trapped under the boat — they must have been flung clear of the boat.”
‘There’s no hero about it’
Mr Critchlow said he did the best he could but still wished he could have done more.
“I was brought up on the ocean. My dad was a fisherman. My dad’s mates were fishermen, and growing up in the surfing community and being part of big wave surfing you form a certain mentality that if somebody is in trouble, you do not give it a second thought — you help out.”
“Because at the end of the day, we are all humans and we all want to go home to our loved ones.
“I couldn’t have gotten underneath the boat if it wasn’t for Tyler driving the ski and keeping an eye on me.
“There’s no hero about it. It is just about being a human being and trying to look out for other humans.”
Mr Critchlow believed that if he and others had not been out there on jet skis the two men would not have survived.
He said his thoughts were with the family of the man who died.
“It just melts me that I couldn’t find him,” he said.
“I really wish I could have.”