Fred is a casual fisherman. He has his own boat – an aged, 16ft tinnie fitted with a 50hp outboard. The outboard is 15-odd-years-old, but runs okay. It hasn’t had a service for about 10 years. Hasn’t needed one, Fred says. Runs okay. Save your money. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Fred is going fishing offshore. He hasn’t told his wife where he is going; she doesn’t need to know. In fact, he hasn’t told anybody. “My spots are secret and I’m not telling them anything.”
At the ramp Fred watches other boaters fussing about, making last-minute checks before heading to sea. “Silly buggers, why don’t they just get out of the way and go. Gear checks, radio checks … load of rubbish. You’re going fishing. Just get in the boat and go.”
Fred doesn’t call Coastguard on the radio. In fact, he doesn’t even have a radio. “Load of rubbish. Who wants to listen to people jabbering all day about the weather, where they’re fishing, what they’re catching and all that trivial nonsense …”
Fred hasn’t listened to any weather reports, either. He doesn’t have to. Load of rubbish. “Anybody can see what the weather is like today! I don’t need some bloke in Sydney trying to frighten me with stories about high winds and rough seas. I can see with my own eyes that the sea is okay.”
Wide offshore, Fred has caught a few flathead and snapper and trolls for a while hoping for a surface fish. Nothing eventuates so he winds in and prepares to move to a different location.
But there’s a problem – the motor won’t fire. The engine turns over okay, but doesn’t start. “The plugs must be fouled up from all that trolling. I thought that old petrol might have a bit of water in it. I’ll soon fix that …
“Hang on, where’s the plug spanner? I remember I had it a month or so back. I borrowed it to do a job in the garage. Hell, it’s still in the garage, with the rest of my tools! I’ll just have to sit and wait for the motor to cool down. Then it’ll start.”
But it doesn’t. So Fred sits there and wonders what to do. “Maybe a boat will come along and I’ll get a tow. In the meantime, I can maybe put an anchor down.” But then he remembers how deep it was and that he doesn’t have enough rope to reach bottom. “I used to have heaps of rope, but I remember I needed some for a job back home last year and used the stuff from the boat. I forgot to replace it. Plus, I need a sand anchor right now and all I have is a rock pick.
“Everything would be okay if we were drifting inshore and over a reef where I could hook up … they reckon a thing called a sea anchor can slow down your drift, but I don’t have one of those. I’ll hang the bucket out the back. That might work … damn, the handle has pulled off. Next time I’ll get a decent bucket, that won’t come apart.
“If I had one of those silly gadgets that told you how deep the water was and in which direction you were drifting I’d be okay,” but Fred never got round to buying one. Kiddies electronic toys.
It’s the same with a compass. “Who needs a compass to tell you which way you’re going? Use your eyes if you want to know which way is land and which way isn’t.”
No sign of any other boat yet. Shouldn’t be long now, though.
It’s been a couple of hours and the motor still won’t start. Fred tries shifting the plugs with a pair of pliers but that doesn’t do any good. No sign of a tow, either. “One idiot came past, a long way away. I waved to him, but he just waved back and kept on going. Maybe there’s a special way to wave when you want a tow.
“I’ll watch out for a plane. They reckon they keep an eye out for boats in trouble and report in. A bloke in the pub said you have to have a V sheet – a piece of orange plastic with a V on it. Apparently the pilot sees it, phones in and they come and get you. Told the bloke in the pub it was for novices, but I wouldn’t mind one right now …”
It’s starting to get a bit late, and dark and Fred is getting a bit toey, wondering what to do next.
“It’s dark, really dark. Tried the red and green running lights, but then remembered the globes burnt out years ago and I didn’t replace them. Didn’t need to – I never go fishing at night. Same with that transom light. Got in the way all the time when I was fishing, so I put it somewhere. It’s dark all right and I’m getting cold. Should’ve brought a jumper or a jacket.”
Fred is starting to get nervous. He saw a ship earlier in the night, but it didn’t stop. “You’d think they would have picked me up on radar and come over to give me a hand, but they just ignored me. Would be different if I had some of those flares … they’d spot me in a flash. Light up the whole sky. That’d show ‘em.
“One of those EPIRB things would come in handy right about now, too. Apparently all you do is press a button and they come and get you. Might price one when I get home. Maybe a radio, too. Could even think about a mobile phone. I could ring my wife and tell her to organise somebody to come out and tow me home. Or bring me a bloody plug spanner!”
Fred is beginning to think he might be in trouble. It’s the middle of the night and when he tries to doze on the bottom of the boat it’s murder on his back and shoulders. And wet.
“I had thought somebody might have come looking for me by now. They would have seen my car and trailer back at the ramp and realised I was in trouble. Bit of a worry, though. I hadn’t told anybody where I was going or when I would be back. Even so, they must wake up sooner or later.”
A bit of water has been coming into the boat, too. One bung is a little worn and lets a bit through. Fred doesn’t have a bailer and the old lemonade bottle is useless. “I can’t sleep with water in the boat. Now I’m wet as well as hungry, thirsty and a bit bloody scared. C’mon … where’s the rescue mob? I pay for a fishing licence. I pay for a boat licence. That’s good money the government gets. Where’s somebody to give me a hand?
“Sea’s getting a bit rough, too. Don’t like the look of this much. Double-checked to see if I have the lifejackets onboard. Haven’t looked at them for years, but hope they are still okay. Just in case. Don’t like the thought of it if the boat sinks. I’d give a thousand bucks for a plug spanner right now … couple of minutes work and I’d be on my way home. Bloody tools. How could I forget something like that.”
In the morning Fred is cramped, tired and wet. And scared. He’s beginning to realise how much trouble he’s in – no safety gear, no way to reach out to anybody, not even sure where he is except the water colour suggests he’s a long way offshore. The southerly is coming up, too. “Looks bad … I vaguely remember something about it on TV the other night, but took no notice.
“Starting to get a bit worried about the lack of food and water, wonder what raw flathead tastes like? Could come to that if they don’t come to get me soon. Worried about the sea, too. It’s getting pretty rough and we’ve had the odd wave over the side. Bailing with a busted lemonade bottle is futile. No sign of any boats. Maybe nobody will be out today because of the weather.”
Back at the pub somebody remarks that they’ve seen Fred’s trailer at the ramp, assuming he’d gone to sea that day despite the bad southerly. Funny thing, someone says, it was there yesterday, too. He does his own thing, says one of the mob. He’ll soon be back. Then they forgot about Fred. Footy’s on TV.
At the end of the second day, Fred’s trailer is still there and a couple of the mob are vaguely concerned. It is too late to do anything, however, so they promise to look into it the next morning. One of them checks with Fred’s wife, who says he hasn’t been home for two days. As always, she doesn’t know when he will be back. Or where he has gone.
Now, thoroughly concerned, the rescue services swing into action. Coastguard boats, Water Police boats, private boats and a plane are marshalled and start a search of the ocean. They aren’t sure where to look. Fred left no information and two whole days pass. They bust a gut in the bad weather looking for him for four whole days. Lots of human resources, much expense, a huge effort. Messages to all shipping and aircraft. All to find Fred.
But they don’t.
It’s two whole weeks now, and Fred is still out there. Somewhere …