Stranded fishermen return to thank rescuers

Harrison Gail, Steve Chapman, Tony Warwick, Trevor Smitham, Caelee France, Saxon France and Mike Axiak.
Harrison Gail, Steve Chapman, Tony Warwick, Trevor Smitham, Caelee France, Saxon France and Mike Axiak.

THREE fishermen rescued by surf lifesavers off Mindarie earlier this year have returned to thank their rescuers.

Steve Chapman (72), Tony Warwick (55) and Trevor Smitham (66), on crutches, visited Quinns Mindarie Surf Life Saving Club in April to thank lifesavers Caelee France, Mike Axiak and Caleb Paulus for their March 19 rescue.

Mr Smitham had recently come out of hospital for treatment of leg injuries sustained while the Mindarie men were in the water for almost five hours after their boat overturned.

“During the ordeal, Trevor had a craypot line entangled around his ankle that they could not easily remove,” club youth director Saxon France said.

Mr France said the overturned boat was about 800m offshore when the rescue took place after noon, having capsized about 7.30am.

“They were pretty hard to see in the ocean,” he said.

His daughter Caelee saw someone waving in the water, prompting Mr Axiak and Mr Paulus to head out in the rescue boat and return with the three men.

“Two patients were lucid but exhausted,” Mr France said.

“The third patient, a 72-year-old male, was drifting in and out of consciousness.

“All were given oxygen therapy, towels, thermal blankets and water.

“The first responders were able to move, stabilise, treat injuries and comfort the younger two patients in the First Aid room.

“The third patient was transported on the ATV ready for immediate intervention by the paramedics when they arrived.

“All three patients presented as stressed and exhausted, with multiple cuts and abrasions and with signs of hypothermia.”

The three grandfathers returned to the club once they were all out of hospital to show their appreciation to those involved in the rescue, particularly Miss France.

“We have no doubt in our minds that her spotting us saved the life of one,” Mr Warwick said.

“I’m sure we would have come into shore at some point (but) I don’t think we would have had Steve with us; he didn’t have that long to go.

“We wanted to give her a big bunch of flowers and a hug to thank her.”

Mr Warwick said their overturned boat had drifted over a reef and they could see people on Quinns Beach, so he took off his board shorts and waved them to attract attention.

They had already been waving floats and seen two boats pass, plus the Surf Life Saving WA helicopter which flew by four times, but none had noticed the boat.

Mr Warwick said they were all experienced boat users and had the necessary safety equipment on board, but the boat capsized so quickly they did not have time to grab the EPIRB.

“We had gone out at 7am to check our craypots,” he said.

“We had three pots that we were bringing closer to shore.

“There was a really big swell that day.

“As we were coming back in, we took a wave over the back of the boat, which swamped us and the next wave flipped us – it probably took 10 to 12 seconds.”

Mr Warwick said they had six life jackets on board, which he believed helped keep the upturned boat afloat.

They held on to the boat and spent the first hour trying to untangle the craypot ropes caught around Mr Smitham’s leg.

“Every time the swell went up, they were pulling him under,” Mr Warwick said.

“Trevor ended up with a fractured ankle.”

Once they freed him, the trio clung onto the boat as it drifted and Mr Warwick said they sustained most of their other injuries when it went over a reef.

“I had (a thought) at the back of my mind in relation to sharks – there was a lot of blood in the water from all of us (but) we never saw a fish,” he said.

The former member of Whitfords Volunteer Marine Rescue Group said one action that may have made a difference would have been calling the group’s radio operators to log in as they set off.

“I think that would have raised the alarm earlier,” he said.

Mr Warwick credited the men’s efforts to work together and the actions of surf lifesavers with their survival.

He also praised paramedics and their families for the support they had received since the incident.