Knockdown – the very word sends a chill down your spine. This word lives in the mariners’ lexicon alongside other, similarly foreboding sounding words like ‘broach’ and ‘capsize’. Definitions vary as to what a knockdown is, but the consensus would seem to be a broadside roll to an extreme angle as a result of the actions of wind and/or sea. Quantification of the angle would seem somewhat arbitrary and it’s not the sort of thing you’re likely to concern yourself with as your vessel goes through the motion. Instead, references to railings and masts in the water provide a simpler and more poetic metric. Regardless, one thing is certain: a knockdown is a decidedly uncomfortable and potentially very dangerous event; and one which the crew of the Port Stephens lifeboat ‘Danial Thain’ experienced first-hand recently.
This story has echoes of another rescue performed by the ‘Danial Thain’. On 21 April 2015, an East Coast Low parked off the Hunter coast generated cyclonic winds and huge seas which combined to drive a large sailing catamaran – ‘Reef Dragon’ – onto rocks in Fame Cove. That rescue operation was successful and earned the lifeboat crew the 2015 Australian Search and Rescue Award. This time around, the outcome would not be so good. Another East Coast Lower lashed the Hunter region for several days in early January 2016, causing widespread flooding and wind damage. This low didn’t generate quite the same winds or seas as the April low, but still the winds gusted upwards of 50 knots and a combined sea and swell of six to eight metres pummelled the Port Stephens coast. A handful of sailing vessels transiting the area got caught up in this maelstrom and a dire situation rapidly evolved.
Tragically, a 62 year old man at the helm of a small yacht, ‘Amante’, with five persons on board was washed overboard north of Broughton Island just before midday on 6 Jan 16. A major search and rescue effort involving two Westpac rescue helicopters, Nelson Bay Water Police and the ‘Danial Thain’ failed to find any sign of the man before atrocious weather conditions forced the search to be suspended. The sight of the ‘Danial Thain’ escorting ‘Amante’ into Nelson Bay Marina in the early evening was indeed a sad one to behold.
Whilst this tragic event unfolded, other yachts also came to grief in the unrelenting cauldron outside Port Stephens’ iconic heads. The Marine Rescue radio base atop Nelson Head – home to the Port Stephens Division – would, over the course of this day, receive five mayday calls and the area’s marine search and rescue capabilities would be pushed to their limits. The Nelson Bay Water Police had, for example, departed their berth in the very early hours of 6 Jan 16 to assist another yacht north of the Port and wouldn’t return for some 21 hours, having become involved in the search for the missing yachtsman. Likewise, the Marine Rescue boats were heavily committed. The Division’s smaller RHIB lifeboat ‘Codi-k II’ had performed one assist in the morning in Salamander Bay before conditions became too dangerous for this vessel to operate. The 52 ft ARUN-class ‘Danial Thain’ had also towed a vessel in from Cabbage Tree Island in the morning, before joining the search and rescue effort for the missing yachtsman around midday. When she returned just before 8 pm that night with ‘Amante’ under escort, her crew had been battling atrocious seas for more than 10 hours.
Her crew would now rest, but ‘Danial Thain’ would not. Another yacht, ‘M3 Mulberry Racing’, had requested assistance earlier in the day when well south of the Port, having lost her engine and fouled her rigging. With all search and rescue assets committed to the search for the missing yachtsman, the five people on board would have to ride out the conditions as best they could whilst the Port Stephens base maintained a close watch on their situation pending the release of a rescue vessel. This release came that evening, with ‘Danial Thain’ retasked by Marine Area Command (MAC) to assist M3. The unit thus activated a second full crew to take Danial Thain back out. When she arrived at her berth ahead of ‘Amante’, the second crew was there to assist with the berthing and to receive briefs from the offgoing crew. It was clear to all that the conditions outside were extreme. None of the returning crew, some with 30 plus years in the maritime environment, could recall worse conditions than what they had just endured, and they had done so in daylight. The new crew would confront these same, if not worsening, conditions in darkness.
The Danial’s engines were left running as the crew changeover was effected. Sea sickness tablets, lifelines and personal EPIRBs were deftly passed around and then she was off again. Position reports at this time placed M3 almost directly east of the port at about 15 miles from the port limit and drifting to the north-nor-west at 2-3 knots in a very heavy five to six metre south-easterly swell topped with a very confused and breaking two metre sea. The Skipper and navigator conferred and course was set for a departure through the northern side of the heads with a route planned out through the islands and then on a heading of 040 degrees magnetic to intercept M3. As soon as the lifeboat cleared Nelson Head however, the foaming mass of white water engulfing the northern part of the port entrance incited a change of plans; a southern departure and then south of the islands before coming north east was a much more prudent option.
The swells through the heads were large at four to five metres but longish and lazy. This changed markedly however as the Danial came around the southern headland – Tomaree – and entered what we call the ‘washing machine’, that area bounded by the heads and the three offshore islands where swell and sea combine with rocky reflection to produce a churning mass of water which demands your utmost respect. The washing machine can be quite exhilarating when the swell’s up a little, but when the swell’s up a lot it’s best avoided. The conditions we encountered on the night in question as we set course to pass south of Boondelbah Island were some of, it not, the worst I’ve experienced. The boat was slammed by random cross swells as the skipper tried valiantly to hold her head within 30 degrees of the desired heading. Progress was pitifully slow as the boat seemed to expend more time and energy going up, down and sideways than forward, and when we did go forward it was typically off the top of a steep six metre wave into a deep trough.
Its a few miles from the heads to a point south of Boondelbah which you’d expect to take 20 minutes or so to traverse on a normal day. On this night, it took more than an hour as the skipper was forced to zig zag aggressively in an attempt to lessen the impact of the boat-shuddering pitch downs.
As the lifeboat struggled to make way on an easterly course to clear the islands, the sleek hull of M3 slipped further northwest, propelled by the monstrous seas and wind. What started as an intercept quickly became a tail chase, but even on a more northerly heading the lifeboat struggled to close on the yacht. The lifeboat could make barely six knots in the conditions, compared to the M3’s drift away from the lifeboat of at least three knots. With ten miles separating the two vessels and a closing speed of barely 3 knots, it was shaping up as a long and demanding chase. As the navigator on ‘Danial Thain’, I checked and rechecked my calculations, and an alarming reality came sharply into focus; at no more than six knots, the lifeboat would not reach M3 before she would run aground on the eastern shore of the wide arc of beach several miles to the southwest of the Sea Rocks lighthouse. M3 was rapidly drifting to her doom. This alarming conclusion was relayed to the radio base who then informed the MAC. M3 had already taken measures to slow her drift, including deployment of a sea drogue and the laying of sails overboard. In a last ditch effort to buy more time for the lifeboat to get to her, M3 was now asked to jury rig a sail and endeavour to make her way east. This she managed with considerable effort in the heavy seas, and her drift towards the beach was halted and then reversed. The lifeboat had now closed within three miles of M3 and could see her lights intermittently as both vessels rose and fell in the huge seas. Having arrested her drift, M3 was now confronted by a new dilemma – a distinct lack of sea room. She had drifted into an area bounded by heavy shoaling and a very active set of bomboras to her east and north, and therefore could not maintain her preferred easterly course. A tack and a jibe followed, but the navigator’s radar picture and the more urgent requests for assistance from M3 told the real story: M3 was rapidly running out of time, and every wave conspired to drive her into shallower water closer to the beach, making the lifeboat’s job ever more difficult.
A tow had been set on the back deck but the skipper now ordered a nose tow to be set, given the lack of sea room he had. At this point in time, the seven crew on the Danial Thain were positioned as follows: Ron, the skipper, was on the helm in the flybridge; I was beside him as safety watch and to operate the forward searchlight; Mike, the engineer, was eight feet from me, manning the aft searchlight; and Laurie, Paul, Tom and Ian were on the aft deck ready to set the tow.
The situation was urgent and the margins narrow, but things were under control. And then, in one heart-stopping moment, it all changed. A massive roar was the first sign of impending mayhem, as Ron and I both looked with horror at a churning wall of white water at least 20 feet high charging out of the darkness on the lifeboat’s starboard side. It pummelled into the side of the lifeboat with ungodly force and quite literally knocked the 35 tonne lifeboat over on its port side and then drove the vessel towards the beach. The flybridge was in the water, the port side railing well submerged, and every crew member just held onto whatever they could. All crew were wearing lifelines, and there is no doubt that these lifelines stopped the four crewmen on the aft deck from being propelled overboard. In the flybridge, Ron and I both got knocked off our feet. As soon as the wave subsided, the faithful old lifeboat righted herself. Survival was now the focus, and we all knew another wave would soon follow. Ron struggled to his feet and quickly yelled that we’d lost the port engine. I meanwhile had regained my feet and was desperately looking for the next wave. I could see the rapidly approaching wall of water towering over the lifeboat and was yelling to Ron to bring the bow to starboard to take the next breaker head on. Ron knew what had to be done but with an overheating starboard engine only, the prospects didn’t seem good. The next wave was not much smaller than the first and slammed into the lifeboat’s starboard side, but Ron had succeeded in getting the bow around enough to soften the impact a little. There was no prospect of getting the port engine back in the short term. A third knockdown quickly followed before Ron managed to get the bow around. With only the Sugarloaf Point light at Seal Rocks as a visual cue, the task at hand was clear – get through these breaking waves into deeper water. I swung the forward searchlight to the front and illuminated a long line of incoming breakers. Ron just pointed the Danial Thain straight at them and held on. At this point, Laurie yelled up that all deckcrew were accounted for. What he didn’t convey was that he had had to sever their lifelines with his knife to free them from the tangled mess of the aft deck and then physically man-handled them into the relative safety of the main cabin!
Laurie and I then swapped out so that I could get back on the navigation desk and guide the boat to safer water. The aft deck was abandoned but just inside the main cabin Ian, Tom and Paul were slumped on the floor and in chairs; one had a dislocated shoulder, another a lacerated eye brow. All three had clearly been through the wringer. I quickly assessed the boat’s position and gave a safe heading once clear of the breakers. I then declared a Mayday on behalf of M3, having heard their last desperate call that they were abandoning ship. Finally, I provided the radio base with a situation report before leaving to check on the three crewman more thoroughly.
As I moved among them, a new threat suddenly dawned on me; the aft deck was a mess, but something was missing – about 30 meters of heavy duty towline which had been flaked across the deck in preparation for setting the tow. I ran to the stern rail and was confronted by an unnerving sight – a mass of line swirling in the water and only feet from the starboard propeller. If this line became entangled around that propeller, we’d lose the engine and with it, any chance of keeping the boat off the beach. I yelled for assistance from the deckcrew and Tom, bloodied brow and all, responded. We worked desperately to recover the towline, heaving line and bridle – not an easy task as the boat pitched violently in the breaking seas. We eventually succeeded however, and I for one breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Mike meanwhile had succeeded in restarting the port engine, while Ron and Laurie nursed the battered and bruised lifeboat towards home, all none the wiser regarding the drama on the aft deck.
The five people on board M3 made it safely to the beach and were met there by police soon after. This was welcome news for the lifeboat crew who now faced a four hour trip home through dark and foreboding seas. The radio base and MAC operators could sense the seriousness of the situation however and set wheels in motion to shepherd the lifeboat home. A Westpac helicopter was tasked to shepherd the lifeboat but was grounded by the weather conditions. Nonetheless, it remained on standby to assist the lifeboat. The Nelson Bay Water Police also responded and met the Danial Thain just north of Broughton Island in their large vessel. They were indeed a sight for some sore eyes.
The trip home was long and contemplative. The lifeboat finally re-entered its home port at 6:30, just as the sun rose and some 11 hours after we had departed. At the berth, the Unit Commander, Tony O’Donnell, and Neil Grieves were there to welcome us. Neil, our very committed and concerned Regional Controller, had made the long journey up from Lake Macquarie in the very early hours of the morning upon hearing of the lifeboat’s predicament. These two men were soon joined by a team of ambulance paramedics who wasted no time in tending to the injured crew, and by the two policeman who’d braved the atrocious conditions and shepherded the lifeboat home. I’m confident I speak for all of the crew when I say it’s not an experience I’d care to repeat. If I had to however, I could think of no better boat than the Danial Thain to be on, and no better crew to be with than the ones I will share these memories with for the rest of my life…