Black Friday: Drama on the High Seas

Friday the 13th. ‘Black Friday’ here in Oz. I am not superstitious so it means little to me.

Gorgeous calm(er) day today, with a magnificent sunrise and still waters as we head out from the slip and cruise towards the fuel dock.

“What’s that smell?” asks Amanda.

“It’s low tide and no wind, just the harbor, mangroves and mudflats smell a wee bit,” I reply.

A few minutes later, Amanda declares, “It’s not the harbor. There is a dead fish in the boat!”

Sure enough laying dead and fetid at the stern of the vessel is an eel-looking fish ‘thing’ stinking and rotting on the deck. ‘Must have flipped into the boat by mistake and died yesterday when you were in the Daintree.”

“I’m not touching that,” said Amanda, as I disposed of it overboard.

A dead fish in your boat on Friday the 13th, that can’t be a good omen.

After a fueling we head off on survey. We cruise east towards the Great Barrier Reef and then north towards Pratt Rock. 3.5 hours past and nary a whale blow is detected.

The VhF radio crackles to life. A desperate woman’s voice is hailing Coast Guard Port Douglas (whom only work on weekends). Soon Coast Guard Cairns is responding. The vessel is in distress and sinking. Cairns is 50 nm away and can’t mobilize. A call is made to the volunteer marine rescue/Coast Guard in Port Douglas. They are off-duty and can mobilize but will not reach the distressed vessel for over 1.5 hours. The yacht is sinking and will not last that long.

I call Annie back to the helm. “Get ready to take notes, let’s see if we can find these people and help them,” I said. I hail the vessel on the emergency channel 16 and get their GPS coordinates. Annie quickly inputs them and creates a waypoint for us to locate them. I call the vessel ‘Shiloh’ back, “You are 3.89 nm west of our current location. I can be there in ten minutes to assist you.”

“Thank you,” is the reply. And then, “Please hurry.”

I radio Coast Guard Cairns and let them know our position and ETA to the vessel. In the meantime they are rousing Coast Guard Port Douglas who are en route the harbor and will depart on board the 'RV Douglas' in less than 15 minutes.

We arrive on the scene and find ‘Shiloh’ with its sails up and apparently aground. “Are you grounded Captain,” I radio. “Yes. And we have a hole in the vessel and are about a third full of water,” he replies.

I cruise to within 50 meters of his vessel and draw 4.1 feet of water. The ‘Shiloh’ has hit a sand bank hard and is slowly sinking. It appears the Captain has made a grave navigation error and has approached the entry to the Daintree River from the north instead of the south and has run aground, hard.

We advise him to collect his belongings, EPIRB and abandoned ship. We convey the message to Coast Guard Cairns, who concurs. Coast Guard Port Douglas has arrived at the harbor and will depart with their 35-foot motor vessel in 15 minutes. I give them the coordinates to the sinking ‘Shiloh’ and apprise them I will be collecting passengers.

The seas are rough, and the water is shallow. Twice we take breaking waves across our stern depositing gallons of water in our boat (but washing away the stinking dead fish smell in the process). This will be a delicate procedure rescuing these folks.

Three members of the ‘Shiloh’, the captain and a couple, escape the sinking vessel in their dinghy. We collect them and bring them on board with little drama. Annie ties off their dinghy and hauls each on board. “Are you injured? Do you need a towel? Are you okay?” she asks.

They all appear in relatively good spirits. They were unable to rig towlines for us because what lines that had on the vessel were underwater. 45 minutes later Coast Guard Port Douglas arrives. We chat extensively on the radio. At one point they ask for a “sit rep”. I ask them to repeat, “Please provide a sit rep,” the captain asks. I am bewildered. Amanda pipes up, “It’s a military term for ‘situation report.’ I hear it all the time on NCIS” (which I guess is some military cop show – guess you can learn something for TV). After providing the ‘sit rep’ we transfer the rescued passengers to the Coast Guard vessel in a 5-knot off-load dance.

We then head back to the vessel for one last assessment to check for fuel spills and overall condition. As we approach the vessel lists painfully past 45˚ and fills with water. A sad sight, and one that could have been avoided through prudent seamanship.

Coast Guard Cairns and Port Douglas thank us for our efforts and congratulate us on a job well done. We are only happy to help, knowing that one day we may be making a similar call and hope there are folks like us out there willing to help.

We head for Snapper Island for lunch and to re-focus on our work. After a late-lunch we head south towards the Low Islands. We head two miles east of the Lows and stop. 20 minutes later, a mother, calf and singing escort appear out of the blue within 100 m of our vessel.

Then five bottlenose dolphins appear with the trio. The calf begins to breach and breach and breach. The sun is dropping low quickly. Time to call it a day and head to port. As we pull into Port Douglas the sunsets over the coastal range.

“What a day,” I said.

“I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow.” says Annie.

Nor can I.


Greg Kaufman


Diane (visitor) says:

I want your life. I am moved to tears. Good on ya!

Kim (visitor) says:

I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying these entries--every day I look forward to seeing what's happened. The whale and dolphin photos are wonderful! I would be interested to hear how similar their behavior is to what you see in Maui, and especially if you notice any differences. Keep up the great work!

greg says:

G'day Kim:

The humpback behavior we observe off Port Douglas and  the Whitsunday Islands is very similar to that off Maui.  We do see different behaviors as the animals move south along the coastline.  Namely we see multiple mother and calf pods, feeding, migratory swim behavior, and fluke-up 'feeding', or resting that we don't generally see in Hawaii.

Keep in mind later when we are in Hervey Bay or Eden this will  be like observing Maui humpbacks en route to their summer feeding grounds (Alaska, west coast and areas further north).  Imagine tracking Maui's humpbacks some 800 - 1,500 miles out to sea after they leave.  That is one of the reasons why we are working off Australia, to get some insight into exactly what they do during migration.  Right now it looks as if there is a continuum of the mating behaviors the entire way -- the males don't stop singing or pursuing females. And in particular, they appear to target females with newborn calves on the southward migration, avoiding them in the nursery grounds.  Humpbacks can become pregnant while nursing so this strategy seems like it works for some males.

Beth Salles (visitor) says:

wow what a day guys!!! think we need to add Search and Rescue to the side of your little boat!!! Even the dolphins and the Humpbacks were saying "Thanks Mate" for a job well done.