Glen Stockdale - Ayr

This story is about a day that was no-contest the worst day I’ve had on the water, ever. It all started about 15 years ago when my mate Troy had just bought a 2nd hand Yalta 189 fibreglass boat and invited me to take part on the maiden voyage trip to the reef.

When I arrived the day before to help load the fuel/bait/ice etc, he said he had just bought a new VHF radio and antenna to replace the old one, as it looked pretty dodgy and he didn’t trust it. I commented that I was surprised how small the antennas were these days, as it was only about 300mm long. Troy told me that he also asked about that but the guy at the shop told him “that’s what all the reef boats are using these days, it’s just the technology has got better”. Ah well, that was good enough for me. We filled up the underfloor tank which held plenty of fuel for a day trip, but we filled an extra 20L drum “just in case” as we weren’t sure of the fuel economy of the new motor.

We checked the weather forecast on Seabreeze, cross checked with BOM and wherever else and they all said calm sea conditions until there was a strong Southerly change coming through around Sunday evening. We were planning to be home around lunch on Saturday, well before that change came through so the trip was locked in and we were good to go….

It was still dark well before sunrise on the Saturday, when I met Troy, his dad Rob, and another mate Todd as we put the boat into the water at the Ocean Creek ramp. We were all excited during the quick trip to the mouth, especially as we were greeted with beautiful calm seas. We set course for the reef and made quick time as we got to the reef in about an hour and a half and straight into the fish. As soon as VMR began operating, we did the right thing and called in to register our trip details, and destination etc. The lines went down again and the fish were on the chew, and we got a good haul of trout, red throat, a couple of nice emperor, and even a good size Spanish on the floater out the back. It was an absolute belter of a morning, we had about 20 nice fish and the weather was spectacular. “Doesn’t get any better than this!” was the common saying aboard.

Esky full of red fish… doesn’t get any better than this.

It got to around lunch time and we decided we’d caught enough and had a good day, so it was time to go. We began cleaning up the boat and thought we’d better have a beer to toast the great day, and the new boat as we were wrapped how it performed and couldn’t have hoped for a better maiden voyage. As we were sitting back sipping on a few beers feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, we noticed a gentle cool breeze started from nowhere and quickly picked up enough to spin the boat around about 180 degrees on the anchor. We all looked at each other and all knew what each other was thinking. “Uh oh, surely this isn’t that bloody weather change already…”

Sure enough, by the time we’d pulled the anchor up to start heading back in the seas had changed from flat shiny oil to a nasty chop. We pointed the nose for home and started heading straight into much worse conditions that on the way out. The sea was going to make the trip home uncomfortable, and we soon knew the 40 mile trip home was going to take much longer than coming out, that’s for sure. As we kept going the waves kept growing bigger, and bigger, with Troy having to gun the outboard just to get up the face of the waves, then quickly back off the power as we fell down and slammed over the back. We’d all seen plenty of white caps before, but I still remember the feeling of unease when we noticed a lot of waves were actually starting to curl over greeny blue, just like the surf waves down south.

“Shit, we’re in a bit of trouble here.” We tried calling in to VMR to let them know of our predicament, but got no response. We tried again and again, but got nothing. “This isn’t good.”

We’d travelled for over an hour, rarely at planing speed for a distance of about 10 miles. We tried contacting VMR again but got no response again. For the first time in my life, we all had lifejackets out and ready, but nobody actually put one on for some reason. Maybe nobody wanted to be the first to put one on and admit the seriousness of the situation, but I’m sure we all thought the time may come that we’d need them. From such a fun trip where we all were having a ball laughing and hanging shit on each other, there wasn’t much being said now.

I think we were about half way home after about 2 hours of up and down each wave as high as the canopy, when we actually heard something on the VHF. VMR were actually calling us! We were overdue on our registered arrival time, so they were seeing how we were. We found out later that they were overrun with distress calls and checking on people as the weather change had come through so far in advance that something like 20 boats had called in distress between Bowen and Townsville that day. We called back to let them know we were travelling, slowly, but making our way in. We heard them calling something like “Mackie, Mackie, Mackie, this is VMR Burdekin, are you on channel?”. We tried again to let them know our predicament but they couldn’t hear us. “Not such a great aerial that bloke sold you Troy” was mentioned in not so polite terms.

We pushed on and noticed that we had already used way more fuel than expected and were only about half way home. We had a quick discussion and if we kept the nose pointed forward we were travelling ok, but if we ran out of fuel with the waves this big we would surely get turned side on, and most likely tipped over and end up in the water with about 20 bleeding reef fish as burley around us. It shows how serious the occasion was when the decision was made to dump the fish over the side. This would serve two purposes, significantly lighten the load by dumping the fish, ice, food etc to help save fuel, and also get rid of the potential shark attractant is we did end up getting capsized and end up in the water.

In all my life I had never realistically contemplated how bad this could get, but the shit was getting real at this point. We opened the esky lid and threw back all of the fish we’d caught. Beautiful reef fish, trout, red emperor, and red throat lippers all going back in the opposite direction of which they came. I can’t stress strongly enough for anyone to think just how desperate the situation is to be forced to lighten the load to avoid being capsized 20 miles out to sea.

Whenever we have been together and told this story, the most common reaction is “I can’t believe you actually threw the fish out”. F*&! the fish, I’d do it again tomorrow if I needed to. I’d rather buy fish and chips the rest of my life than to have myself and my mates end up floating in the sea out there in those conditions. Especially with the numbers of bloody sharks that give us a flogging every trip. That’s how serious it was. I don’t know about the other guys as I never actually asked about it, but I covered all the bases by even sending a quick silent prayer. Anyway back to the story….

One of Troy’s neighbours knew we were out at sea, and had alerted his mum to the to the change in weather and asked if we were still out there? They had pulled the neighbours boat out into the yard to try and contact us to see how we were. As they were listening they could hear VMR calling us without response. With all the other distress calls going on, and no reply from us, they certainly started fearing the worst. Jo rang our families to let them know what was going on.

We kept nudging towards home, one big wave at a time, still trying to communicate to VMR when a crackly transmission came though saying something about “if they haven’t heard from us in half an hour, they would be launching a rescue”. We certainly didn’t want anyone else heading out into this mess risking themselves to look for us. We were wet, uncomfortable, scared, but not needing rescue at this point. We tried telling them but they still couldn’t hear us. We assumed that the waves were so tall that they were blocking the transmission to and from the little bloody radio antenna.

We eventually got to the point where we were very low on fuel, as we’d used so much fuel getting up and down the waves without planning properly. Lucky we brought that extra jerry can after all. Actually getting it into the main tank was not going to be fun in this huge swell. Lucky the cap for the tank was up in the cab so two of us tucked up in there and got ready. We were getting tossed around as we dropped over the waves, but lucky we had a jiggler hose to help get the fuel in. Todd and I wedged ourselves in the cab to steady ourselves and poured the fuel into the main tank as best we could. It was that rough that we couldn’t help but have a bit of spillage, but luckily most of the fuel went in.

We’d been going for about three and a half hours when we finally got through to VMR. They hadn’t yet sent the rescue, so we let them know that we were OK and still on our way home. We had travelled about thirty five nautical miles in just under four hours when the seas finally began to ease. For a normal trip even this sea would have been called too rough to go out in, however after what we’d just spent so long getting thrown around in, it seemed like just a rough chop. Thank Christ for that.

While it was still rough going, we knew we were through the worst of it and the sense of relief was clear to see. There had been silence and shared worried glances for so long, but there were smiles coming out again. I think there was some mention of the radio antenna and where the salesman was going to get it lodged when we got our hands on him.

We quickly ate up the final 5 mile or so and when we got inside the protected mouth of Ocean Creek it was like we’d just won the Lotto. We pulled up in the calm water and signed off with VMR. Just a short run up the creek left to go and the gauge was showing we had very little fuel left. Maybe tossing the fish and ice was the right call after all.

As we pulled up at the ramp we had a landing party greeting us. Troy’s mum, brother, brother’s girlfriend, Todd’s wife, his mum and dad. I looked around and nobody for me! Thanks a bloody lot! When we jumped out of the boat it was such a relief to touch land again, I even kissed the ramp! I quickly rang the wife and let her know we were home, and did ask why she wasn’t there with the rest of the crew.

“When Jo rang and said how serious it was, I rang your dad to ask him what to do. He said not to worry, you guys know what to do and as long as you take it slow you’ll be alright.” I’m glad dad was so confident, as I know the rest of us weren’t. A trip that took 1 ½ hours to the reef took just over 4 hours to get home, but I guess he was right as Troy and Rob stayed calm and drove to the conditions and we eventually made it home.

Needless to say we didn’t have any fish to eat that night, but we had a good story to tell over a few beers with our mates. Oh, and next trip I went on with Troy, he had a new 6 foot long VHF aerial hanging attached to the boat canopy and it has worked flawlessly ever since!

Lessons learnt:

  • Weather forecast isn’t an exact science and they don’t always get it right
  • Buy a decent aerial for your marine radio and make sure it works
  • Always check in with VMR so someone knows where you are or when to come looking if things get bad enough
  • Take enough fuel so that you have enough “just in case”
  • Pack a jiggler hose in your boat, as you don’t want to be pouring fuel into a funnel at sea, especially if it’s rough