08 March 2005

Australia dive boat capsizes: Divers, crew forced to swim for their lives

QUEENSLAND, Australia - As Cathie Horne kicked and kicked for more than 2km in choppy seas in darkness off Queensland's Hervey Bay she tried not to think of sharks.

Reliving her ordeal yesterday, the plucky mother-of-three said she was also thanking her lucky stars that she had not seen the movie Open Water, based on the fateful Barrier Reef dive trip of American tourists Tom and Eileen Lonergan.

"We were having a hard enough time just trying to make it to the island," Ms Horne said, adding that to let her thoughts dwell on anything worse just was not an option.

"But the thought of sharks did cross my mind ? I'd heard the stories that people had seen 3m tigers (sharks) out here. But I put it out of my head. It was my fourth dive trip . . . I've only been diving for six weeks."

Ms Horne, 39, was one of eight crew and passengers forced to swim for their lives after their dive boat capsized in freak waves about two nautical miles off Urangan at Hervey Bay on Sunday afternoon. She said the drama began about 4pm when she was still 18m down inspecting a shipwreck on the Bay's artificial reef.

Ms Horne said she learned later that a young German couple and the skipper, Steve Holyoak, were on board when the boat was swamped by one wave and then capsized by another.

"I was coming back up to the surface and I realised the boat's motors were upside down and I thought 'well, this is going to be interesting'."

There were three crew, a Hervey Bay man and another from Sydney, Ms Horne and the German duo.

Ms Horne said the skipper dived into the upturned hull to retrieve a lifejacket as well as a flashlight, flares and EPIRB.

The EPIRB was set off on a float line and two flares were also fired about 4.30pm, however Ms Horne said rescuers apparently began looking in the wrong location ? off Moon Point.

"We were off Woody Island and we could see the boats and searchlights (in the wrong area)," she said.

After staying with the boat for an hour, the group decided to strike out for the island as darkness fell.

"We all held on to each other, the floats and a line and swam together . . . kicked for the island," she said. "No one was panicking, but it took two hours . . . it was very hard going. There was a strong current and a bit of swell although the wind dropped down a bit after dark."

Ms Horne said the four divers with fins ? and she was one of them ? had to do the bulk of the kicking.

Once on Woody Island, the weary group shared some chocolate easter eggs they had managed to recover and their flashlight was eventually seen by Volunteer Marine Rescue boat crew.

They were picked up just after 9pm and returned to Urangan Harbour.

"I'm quite proud of what I did ? now I know I can swim 2km at sea," she said.

Sergeant Greg Dixon from Hervey Bay water police said conditions had been rough, with winds gusting up to 29 knots at the time.

Mr Holyoak, along with marine rescue volunteers, managed to retrieve the stricken catamaran and tow it back to the harbour yesterday afternoon, but he was reluctant to discuss the drama.


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