When the sea turned, Mike Walker could only look on as his best mate was claimed by the waves

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December 16, 2018 09:12:46

It took one bit of bad luck for the power of the ocean to hit with full force and fatal consequences off the coast of Perth.

It was the dead of night on the Indian Ocean, and Mike Walker was in serious trouble.

His yacht Finistere had capsized after its keel snapped during a race off the WA coast in February, leaving the navigator trapped inside the upturned hull.

“The boat was completely inverted. So there was stuff falling out of fridges, there were tools that had fallen out of tool boxes and things. It was pretty chaotic,” he remembers.

“I got into the cockpit area, the upturned cockpit. There was an air gap there. Helga (Weaving), one of the other crew members, was there.

“Then I had to dive down under water to clear all the steering wheel, the ropes and everything else, … to pop up at the back of the boat.”

It was almost midnight and pitch black outside.

With other crew members, he did his best to cling to the slippery hull at the back of the boat, with no real hand holds in the choppy sea.

“Hanging on to the back of the boat was not comfortable because the boat was actually pitching, so the stern of the boat was actually going under water,” he recalls.

“So we’d have to hold our breath for a bit, go under, come back up again.”

A nightmare gets worse

After a while, he noticed the boat’s 70-year-old skipper and owner, Rob Thomas — then vice commodore at Fremantle Sailing Cub — was becoming distressed.

Mr Thomas had been on deck and was tossed into the water when the Finistere went over, 17 kilometres off the coast of Mandurah.

“We went down one wave and he came back up and he was essentially unconscious and unresponsive,” Mr Walker says.

“I couldn’t hold him and the boat, and keep myself [afloat], so he drifted away basically.

“He just passed out completely. We couldn’t do anything because you can’t do CPR in the water.

“It was pretty heart wrenching because you see your best mate floating away.”

The repeated immersions were also taking their toll on crew member Paul Charles Owens, 60.

He had been holding on a few metres away from the others on the port side of the boat.

When help arrived, the report said Mr Owens was pulled on board a Water Police boat but was unresponsive. Despite attempts to resuscitate him with CPR and oxygen, he could not be revived.

One step that can prevent a tragedy

A report by a panel commissioned by race organiser Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club, and chaired by Corruption and Crime Commission head John McKechnie, concluded Mr Thomas was not wearing a life jacket at the time of the accident and only two of the six crew had the safety devices on.

The panel recommended the yacht club find ways to ensure racing sailors wear life jackets on deck at night and seriously consider requiring life jackets be worn at all times by crew on deck.

“You can get complacent when conditions are very calm and very pleasurable, the temptation not to put a life jacket on at night is there,” Mr Walker says.

It is a safety reminder echoed by Fremantle Sea Rescue, one of the busiest marine rescue groups in the country.

The volunteers come to the aid of between 550 and 700 boats each year and they strongly urge sailors and motorboat owners to log in with them before they head out to sea.

From their control tower overlooking Fremantle Port, president Mark Zuvela and the other staff watch dozens of boats leaving every day.

But Mr Zuvela says less than 10 per cent log on with them or another marine rescue group before departing.

This is despite the waters off Perth being well known for their exposure to the open ocean, with potentially strong seas and winds that can change very quickly.

“If you log on with a marine rescue group in Western Australia, we know where you’re going to, where you came from and the number of people on board, as well as the details of your boat,” he says.

“So if you do go missing, we at least have an idea where to search.”

A fishing trip can turn fatal in seconds

In the most recent tragedy, four members of the same family died when they went on a fishing trip for the day to Rottnest Island off Perth’s coast in October.

Uock Pham, 50, and his brother Tuan, aged in his 40s, have still not been found.

But the bodies of Uock Pham’s 24-year-old son, Jacob, and 32-year-old future son-in-law, Justin O’Neill, were recovered from the ocean near Garden Island the day after they went missing.

Police divers found the remains of their 5.5-metre boat, Yeah Buoy, broken into pieces on the sea floor eight nautical miles off Fremantle seven weeks later.

Water Police are still investigating what could have happened, but flares and an EPIRB on board were not activated, suggesting a quick and catastrophic accident.

“On a smaller boat, particularly boats that are under eight metres, … they can go down very quickly,” Mr Zuvela says.

“So, it can almost be a matter of seconds.”

He said boat owners needed to know what their boat was capable of and how quickly they could respond to an emergency.

“And that can range from a boat fire; it can range from sinkings; it could range from a collision with a submerged object,” Mr Zuvela says.

“Anything can happen so you’ve really just got to be alert and prepared for it.”

The key to survival

That is something Chris Kelly has become used to in his more than 50 years of ocean racing, including 11 Sydney to Hobart races.

He now heads the training and safety programs at Hillarys Yacht Club. For him, planning and preparation are key.

“The most important thing is the preparation,” he said.

“So to ensure that you know the safety equipment on your boat, you now where it is, you know it’s in a workable order. You know it’s not tangled.”

And he always keeps a close eye on weather forecasts, particularly changing winds and skies.

“When you see a sign that you’re not used to and it’s out of your experience, then the best thing you can do is either not go on the water or head for your nearest port, your nearest safe haven,” Mr Kelly says.

“So it’s about reading the sky and the clouds … As soon as they go black, it is time to go home.”

Topics:

marine-parks,

maritime,

accidents,

disasters-and-accidents,

perth-6000,

hillarys-6025,

fremantle-6160,

wa



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