I was just settling down for a night of TV watching with my wife when the relaxed atmosphere was suddenly and ungraciously shattered by the loud claxon ringtone of my mobile, telling me an SMS had just arrived from the Duty Callout Officer (DCO). The time – 9:12 pm, on Wednesday, 8 July 2020. The SMS said simply ‘SOLAS Esmerelda Cove’, meaning a boat and its occupants were in serious trouble at Esmerelda Cove, one of the three recognised anchorages at Broughton Island, that unusually shaped landmass 10nm north-nor-east of Port Stephens.
I, like other boat crew, shot back a response to the DCO telling him I was on the way and would be at the dock within five minutes, before quickly dressing. I was out of the door, in the car and off down the road in two minutes. I arrived at the dock four minutes later. I was the first to arrive and the dock was eerily quiet, so much so that I rang the DCO to confirm the SOLAS. As the phone rang, I saw another car enter the car park area, followed soon after by a third car. I hung up – the SOLAS was real.
Mick and I hurriedly prepared Port Stephens 31 (PS31) – the Unit’s 38 foot Steber rescue vessel – for sea, whilst Matt jumped into the navigator/radio position and made contact with the radio base. Harry was the lone watchkeeper on duty at the base that night and had fielded the panicked call from the large ketch just before 9 pm saying they had dragged their anchor and were now within metres of the rocks. He had conveyed this information to the NSW Police Marine Area Command (MAC) operations room in Sydney and to the DCO. Neil – a highly experienced DCO – had then calmly gone about calling out a crew via a SOLAS SMS, a somewhat rare procedure reserved for the most serious incidents where human life is in ‘grave and imminent danger’.
Night operations with PS31 are normally undertaken with a crew of five – a skipper, a nav/radio, helm/systems operator, and two deckhands – one forward and one aft; and so it was on this night. Within minutes of the first three, the final two crew – Barney (the skipper) and Iain arrive at the dock. To this point, none of the crew have much of a picture of what it is they have responded to; all they know is there is a SOLAS situation in Esmerelda Cove. As Matt gathers information however, their awareness rapidly improves. Within minutes, the skipper and crew have a much fuller picture of what it is they’re facing: a large 52 foot steel hulled ketch of 30 tonnes and with three men on board has dragged its anchor in Esmerelda Cove, cannot start its engines and is now dangerously close to rocks. Matt also gathers the latest observed and forecast weather from the Radio Base; the observed winds are light, at only four knots, but the Bureau of Meteorology forecast is for strengthening winds up to 25 knots, a southerly swell of two to three metres and seas of one-and-a-half to two metres; nothing really nasty, but enough to make the trip to Broughton and back a little uncomfortable.
Barney finalises his responsibilities as the rest of crew complete the Open Ship checklist. Barney then musters the crew and briefs them. Our priority is to save the three souls onboard. Saving the vessel however might be problematic given her size and displacement; at 52 feet and 30 plus tonnes, she’s longer but also much heavier than PS31 and towing her to safety won’t be easy.
PS31 departs her berth just after 9:30pm. Matt has already selected a course for Esmerelda Cove and provides Barney with a heading to follow as we depart the marina. There’s a near full moon tonight, but there’s also plenty of cloud around to shroud it. Visibility varies therefore between quite good and poor, dependent on the interaction of the two.
As we track towards Yacaaba – that imposing northern sentinel of Port Stephens – the moon is low in the east but free of cloud, and casts a reflective light off the sea. The crew are therefore able to observe the sea and swell as PS31 runs out on the Corrie light. There’s very little sea to speak of. There is a swell of two metres or so, but it’s what I like to call quite lazy – long wavelengths making for a reasonably comfortable ride.
In these fair conditions, Barney is able to push PS31 to 20 knots. Our course takes us between Cabbage Tree and Boondelbah Islands and then on a heading of 040 degrees to approach Esmerelda from the east.
Up in the Radio Base, Harry has stayed in touch with the distressed vessel (DV), providing regular updates on PS31’s progress. Now, as PS31 approaches within five miles of Broughton, Matt takes over communications with the vessel. Not long after having done so, things suddenly get a little interesting. In an effort to secure the vessel and prevent it drifting onto rocks, the crew on board the ketch have decided to deploy a second anchor. To this end, one of the crew boards the ketch’s small aluminium tender (fitted with a small outboard motor) with the second anchor and proceeds to motor away from the ketch. Matt is talking to the skipper of the ketch at this very moment. The skipper is telling Matt what they’re doing when the sudden alarm in his voice alerts Matt to a developing emergency. The small tender has been capsized by a wave, its upturned form suddenly emerging from the surrounding darkness. The man onboard is nowhere to be seen. The two men onboard the ketch search desperately for their friend in the water, their concerns rising by the second…and then…relief. The man appears at the rear of the boat, his inflated lifejacket enveloping his head. He is quickly helped aboard; he’s cold and wet, but uninjured…and alive thanks to his lifejacket. He had been thrown out of the tender when it flipped, had pulled the toggle on his jacket and then calmly swam to the rear of the boat!
Matt conveys this dramatic little episode to the rest of the crew as they continue north at best speed. The silhouette of the island is clear to see as we approach from the south.
The position provided by the DV puts them in Esmerelda Cove. PS31 approaches the cove cautiously;
crewmen are deployed on either side of the vessel with hand-held spotlights to illuminate the nearest hazards – invariably large rock formations with white water around and over them. Esmerelda Cove is open to the south, and the southerly swell is stirring up the cove. Skipper and crew ask themselves why a large ketch would choose such an anchorage in the prevailing conditions as they edge into the cove as far as they dare. Spotlights light up the cove, but there is no sign of a ketch, or any other vessel for that matter, in the area. Matt is talking with the DV again to confirm their position and asks if they can see our navigation lights. They can’t and the conclusion is inevitable – they are not in Esmerelda Cove. In an inspired moment, Matt asks the skipper to screen shot his mobile phone; the Navionics app the skipper is using clearly shows own vessel position as a pulsating red dot. The skipper does as requested and sends Matt an SMS of the screenshot, and suddenly all is clear. The actual position of the vessel is only about 400 metres north of their original estimate as the crow flies, but in the context of Broughton Island, it is an entirely different anchorage – Providence Bay, or North Beach to some. It is well protected from southerly swells, but tricky to navigate, with reef systems and bomboras galore. Navigating through here at night is not for the faint hearted; there is little room for error, and both navigator and helmsman need to be right on the money when it comes to determining and steering a course.
PS31 departs Esmerelda and heads east and then north around Little Broughton Island before settling on a north-westerly course. The crew can now see the lights of the ketch off to port, but avoid the temptation to steer directly for her; the waters between them are awash with reefs. Mick drops into the forward port seat alongside Barney and backs Matt up on the navigation as we cautiously make our way towards the ketch’s position. We negotiate a course between two bomboras and finally break out into less treacherous waters, with a clear run now to the DV. As we approach the vessel, her predicament quickly becomes plain for all on PS31 to see. She is riding a single anchor at something less than 20 metres from a rock wall. To reinforce just how close the ketch was to rocks, the skipper later related to me how the vessel had swung around in the shifting wind only minutes before our arrival on scene; as she swung around, the skipper had watched helplessly as the rear of his vessel passed within three inches of the rock wall.
It was obvious to all that time was of the essence. Barney assessed the situation and quickly decided to reverse PS31 in towards the ketch, get her on a short tow and drag her to safer waters. The crew responded immediately; Mick prepared a heaving line, Iain the tow line and I positioned myself on the rear deck with a spot light to illuminate the hapless ketch and surrounding rocks. As Barney reversed PS31 in, I called out the distance off…15 metres, 10…5…Mick threw a heaving line. It bounced off the railing and fell into the water, the skipper on the bow of the ketch trying desperately but unsuccessfully to recover the heaving line with a boat hook. Barney pulled away as Mick quickly reset, and then began a second approach. Ten metres…5…4…3…2…Mick’s throw sailed across the forward deck of the ketch and was quickly recovered by the skipper, who wasted no time in setting the bridle. Barney had edged forward and Iain now locked off the tow line at 10 metres or so. It was imperative that Barney establish some distance between the ketch and rocks as quickly as possible, but the ketch’s anchor first needed to be recovered. The towline ‘sang’ a little as the power came on; Barney dragged the ketch over her anchor to assist in its recovery, and the crew on board the ketch did a sterling job of getting their anchor back on board in trying conditions. As the anchor broke the surface, Barney commenced the tow proper. Again, the tow line sang under the strain of the ketch’s 30 tonnes, but her head did turn slowly to follow in PS31’s wake. With every passing moment, the distance between ketch and rock increased, much to the relief of those onboard both vessels. Initially the tow was quite unsettled, probably as a consequence of its short length and the prevailing conditions. The ketch rolled from side to side, snatching the tow line and dragging the stern of PS31 around. The short tow continued for several minutes until both vessels were in safe water, and then the tow was lengthened to a more judicious length of 30-40 meters.
Matt plotted a very conservative course for home, accommodating wide arcing turns. Towing speed was limited to five or so knots, making for a slow trip home. The conditions thankfully were quite reasonable, and the longer tow made for a more stable ride all round. Back through the islands some two hours after leaving Broughton and then intercept the Corrie light. A few larger swells coming through the heads to keep us honest, before turning to port for Shoal Bay just as the Point Stephens Lighthouse is occluded.
Options as to what to do with the large ketch are somewhat limited. Mooring is out of the question; at 30 tonnes, she is well in excess of the 20 tonne load limit applicable to public and emergency moorings. Berthing her in the Nelson Bay marina is also out. She’s simply too big for PS31 to manoeuvre safely within the confines of a marina. Anchoring in Shoal Bay seems the best option, and the skipper agrees. We tow the ketch into the middle of Shoal Bay, where the water depth is good for anchoring and where she’ll be protected from the prevailing swell and the westerlies forecast to hit the Bay in the following days. She sets an anchor, then drops the tow. We come alongside to wish them well before we turn for home. It’s a quick run back to Nelson Bay to clear the diesels before we re-enter the marina, berth and close-up PS31, and then go our separate ways. Log off time is 0212 on Thursday, 9 July 2020, five hours to the minute after the SOLAS SMS which first stirred the crew of PS31 into action.
Operations Officer, Marine Rescue Port Stephens