Charter boat the Bell Cay in trouble 200km off the central Queensland coast after a severe storm capsized the boat in August 2010.
Charter boat the Bell Cay in trouble 200km off the central Queensland coast after a severe storm capsized the boat in August 2010. Contributed

Survivors tell of terror at sea

THE fishermen's tales being told in the Cri last night were spellbinding.

Seventeen rescued sport anglers recounted the moment, at 4.20am yesterday, when the charter boat Bell Cay was tossed like a toy with a deafening crack, waking them from their slumbers and plunging them into terror about 200km from land.

It was pitch black, raining hard and blowing like a cyclone as the vessel capsized on coral at Swain Reefs. Some reports said gusts hit 90kmh, whipping up monstrous seas.

Fifteen-and-a-half hours later, the bedraggled fishermen, wearing borrowed clothes, and four crew reached the safety of dry land at Rosslyn Bay, delivered to shore by the police boat Lyle M Hoey.

One of the anglers, 60-year-old Henry Bandrowski, from Sydney, said all the men had lost everything,

“It was very frightening,” Mr Bandrowski said. “The wind was howling, but although it was very hairy, the crew was magnificent. They did everything they could to keep us safe and led us off the boat. We just had to walk 10m on coral into a life raft, but because it was pitch black it was terrifying.”

He said he left his fishing gear, phone, camera, wallet and, most importantly, insulin tablets, on the stricken ship.

“I've got to go straight to hospital for medication, then I'll be right,” Mr Bandrowski said.

The Bell Cay skipper, Clive Hunt, was the first off the police rescue boat and described the storm conditions at sea as “like a cyclone”.

“The wind was so unpredictable. Before we knew what happened we were on the reef and sending out Maydays. All the people are safe, that's the main thing,” he said.

Another fisherman, who gave his name only as Conrad, described the one-legged veteran skipper as heroic.

“It was heroic what he did. There were a lot of brave people out there.”

After an emergency beacon was activated, a nearby fishing vessel, Impulse, pulled all 21 from the life raft with the aid of a shallow-draft boat from another vessel, Odyssey, which had also responded to the SOS.

Rescue helicopters were scrambled, but later recalled and the Yeppoon-based water police boat was despatched at 8am to rendezvous at sea with Impulse.

Considering their age and that earlier in the day they had wondered if they would live or die, the 17 were in high spirits when they reached land.

Brian Hicks, also of Sydney, said he couldn't wait to get back to sea.

“We are all fishing mates and we've been doing this trip for years. We came here to get fish and it's going to be smooth on Sunday so we'll be out again, as soon as we can get more gear,” Mr Hicks said. He said the most remarkable thing about the entire incident was that no one had panicked.

Also on the quayside to meet the men, was Leigh Turnbull, owner of the Criterion Hotel in Rockhampton. He said he had been welcoming the group for 17 years.

“I've found beds for all of them, although three of them will be sleeping on my lounge room floor. The first thing we've got to do is get them some clothes. I'm told a number of them don't even have any underpants.”

Senior Constable Grant Kerlin yesterday said if EPIRBs had not been activated the men might have waited hours for assistance.

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