BEST MATES: Ballina's Ken Flanagan and Jim O'Mara are still baffled at their best mate Ken Heynatz's disappearance off the coast of Africa 21 years ago.
BEST MATES: Ballina's Ken Flanagan and Jim O'Mara are still baffled at their best mate Ken Heynatz's disappearance off the coast of Africa 21 years ago. Harrison Astbury

Killed by pirates, lost in a storm or boat capsized?

IT WAS an ominous coincidence that Ken Heynatz's yacht was called Transgression, as his life up until June 8, 1998 was anything but.

A former Lieutenant Commander in the Australian Navy for 21 years, serving in Vietnam and Borneo, Ken continued his love of the ocean after he was discharged in 1984, setting sail on June 2, 1998 from Richards Bay in South Africa.

Ken was due to stop in at Nosy-Be in Madagascar before arriving in Kenya to drop his British first mate, Penelope Eiloart, off.

Neither Ken nor Penelope ever arrived; somewhere in the Mozambique Channel, something went wrong.

For Ken's two best mates, Ken Flanagan and Jim O'Mara - now in their late 70s - it is still befuddling that Ken could just disappear, even 21 years later.

"We were mates for years," Jim said.

"He was a very bloody careful skipper - he wouldn't take risks.

"I remember travelling from here up to Brisbane with him and his family... as soon as we went over the sandbar he was like Captain Bligh - we had to take watch and all of that."

Ken would have Jim and his crew scrubbing the deck as early as 5am after a night of drinking.

"When we arrived in Tangalooma, we couldn't get off the boat fast enough," Jim said.

Transgression was in frequent radio contact with other yachts in the area as well as South African Coast Guard, and with an amateur radio operator in Kenya, but those communications stopped on June 8.

The Mozambique Channel was a notorious shipping lane, and had rough seas, with shipping containers frequently falling overboard, as well as a reputation for piracy.

Although it was storm season, Ken was a highly experienced seaman, having completed three Sydney to Hobart yacht races, as well as having sailed 18,000km from Plymouth, UK to Fremantle, WA.

Transgression was in top shape, and Ken had all necessary radio, life rafts, EPIRB and safety equipment on board.

Ken would not have gone without a fight.

The two Kens and Jim became friends in their school days, with Flanagan and Heynatz going to primary school together, while Jim and Heynatz boarded at St John's College Woodlawn together.

Ken Flanagan and Jim O'Mara favour the piracy theory, but are not ruling out a heavy storm or capsizing due to hitting a shipping container that went overboard.

International attention and inaction

Transgression's disappearance drew a lot of media attention, both in Australia and overseas; it made the front page of The Northern Star, on July 23 1998 (pictured).

First mate Penelope Eiloart's father paid for articles to be put in African newspapers along the coast, while her employer KPMG also funded a search.

Despite the attention and limited private searches, however, not much help was offered from the South African, Kenyan, Madagascan or Seychelles governments, and it took 42 days for the first search to start.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority explained: "The responsibility lies within the country in whose area the vessel was last known to be ... it is up to the responsible country to initiate any search and rescue action in their own area".

The case even drew the attention of then-MP for Richmond Larry Anthony, who raised the disappearance with then Prime Minister John Howard, but ultimately nothing has been found.

Ken's father Alexander was a pioneer of prawn trawling on the east coast of Australia, receiving an OBE for contribution to the fishing industry, and also received commendation for once saving 29 lives at sea.

Ken leaves behind his former wife Jeannie, a partner Annie and two children Alexandra and Erika - the latter of whom is an international model and former star on Home and Away.