Fishermen’s mysterious disappearance prompts safety plea
AFTER searching for 72 hours at sea, burning more than 460 litres of diesel and yet failing to find any trace of missing fishermen Tim March and Jarrath Hillyer, the Coffs Harbour Marine Rescue commander admits it has been a very unusual and tragic case.
Fishing buddies Mr March, 70, from Valla and Mr Hillyer, 37, from the south coast, disappeared after setting off from the Coffs Harbour Boat Ramp in the early hours of December 29.
They were in a 4-metre tinnie carrying a manual EPIRB, bound for Sawtell Reef.
While on shift at the Marine Rescue base on Beacon Hill, now more than a week and half since the disappearance, Marine Rescue captain Graeme King tells the Advocate the sea that day had been choppy as heavy northeasterly winds were blowing against the one and half metre southeast swell.
This has lead to the theory that the men had most likely been thrown overboard after the waves caused their boat to flip.
Mr King said, according to the database, the men had unfortunately failed to log on with Marine Rescue NSW before they set off, something which he believes would have been crucial in finding them.
When logging on, boaters inform Marine Rescue of vital details including their estimated time of return. If no word is heard from boaters half an hour after this time, water police are alerted and a search begins.
Mr King says the Marine Rescue team did not become aware of the fishermen's disappearance until around 5pm that afternoon when a family member raised the alarm.
It was Mr Hillyer's wife Simone, who had planned to meet up with her husband for lunch. She was down at the boat ramp where she saw the vehicle and trailer were still parked and the men and their boat nowhere to be seen.
"Sadly, in these scenarios, if we haven't found missing people at sea in the first couple of hours of a boat overturning then we can only assume the boat has sunk," Mr King said.
"The first two hours of an incident at sea are what we call the golden hours for this reason.
"Once it gets dark, it becomes a whole new ball game."
Emergency services began searching at around 6pm, involving four helicopters and one fixed wing aircraft combing the waters from Forster to Woolgoolga.
After three days the search was scaled down.
"We were hopeful we might find someone hanging on a rock on an island, but it didn't happen.
"It's odd. If a boat did turn over, normally you would expect things like esky lids, life jackets and fishing lines to wash up on the beach but nothing has turned up as far as we're aware.
"Normally modern boats have got flotation in them so if they did capsize it would float at the surface for some time. It's very unusual, it appears to have sunk outright or maybe it's snagged on the bottom out there somewhere. We don't know."
The men had a manual EPIRB on board, but it was not activated. Mr King suggests this meant something catastrophic may have happened quickly.
It is unknown whether the men were wearing their life jackets.
Mr King stresses the importance for boaters to log on with Marine Rescue NSW before they set off in order to avoid a tragic event such as this. He said only half of people who use the Coffs Harbour Boat Ramp do so.
"Please log on. We need to know who you are and when you're due back, and we'll look after you."
Boaters can simply log on via the free MarineRescue app. Boaters can allow Marine Rescue to track their journey and have their position sent through every half-hour.
Boaters can also log on by radioing in directly.