2 fisherman rescued, another missing off Australia coast

February 28, 2008 6:46:43 PM PST
A commercial fisherman who survived 30 hours in the water after his trawler sank recounted his harrowing ordeal Thursday, telling how he clung desperately to a fiberglass cooler lid while trying vainly to help his exhausted skipper stay afloat. John Jarrett said the shrimp boat's captain, Charlie Picton, held on for hours but eventually drifted away, according to a friend of the crew, Mark McMurtrie.

Authorities called off an air search for Picton, 40, late Thursday. "The evidence suggests that the victim has drowned," a police statement said.

A search helicopter found Jarrett, 41, Thursday afternoon about 9 miles off the coast at Ballina, clinging to the cooler lid that also was used on the trawler as a shrimp-sorting table, Ten Network television reported. Police said he spent 30 hours in the 75-degree water.

The alarm had been raised by 39-year-old Michael Williams, a deckhand aboard the trawler Sea Rogue who swam 12 hours to reach shore at New Brighton Beach where he was found by passers-by Wednesday afternoon, police said.

McMurtrie, who said he learned of the details from Jarrett, said Williams reported the shrimper capsized and sank before dawn Wednesday when its nets snagged on a reef about 8 miles offshore. Williams decided to try to swim for help.

"I was walking along the beach and came across a female who had found this gentleman that had claimed he had been swimming for hours in the water and claimed that his boat had sunk," Chris Gort told Sky News television.

"He had pretty bad cuts and bruises to his legs and his arms. He was pretty exhausted, pretty badly sunburnt," Gort added.

Williams, reportedly in excellent physical condition, was recovering in a hospital in the town of Mullumbimby and declined media requests for interviews.

Rescuers expressed amazement that the two men survived.

Steve Wills, a British marine search specialist working temporarily with Australia's Surf Life Saving Association, said there have been very few cases of people surviving such a predicament.

"The expected survival time for most people in those conditions would be a few hours. The feat for one, in particular, to reach the shore, is pretty remarkable," Wills said.

Jarrett, who was suffering from dehydration and exposure but was expected to make a full recovery at Ballina District Hospital, said he never doubted his own survival.

"I've got a determination like no other person," he said in an interview with Ten Network news as he was surrounded by his three children.

Meeting with other reporters, he said, "I wasn't going to die out there, no way." He added that he would never go to sea again.

Jarrett said Picton, a father of two, had been weakened by cancer treatment and couldn't keep his grip on the floating cooler lid.

McMurtrie quoted Jarrett as recounting how he had to regularly empty the lid of water to keep it afloat. Jarrett said he would support Picton while lifting the lip to drain it, but eventually he slipped off and drifted away, the friend said.