Stray trawler program could save lives
By Alex Easton
IT WAS over in minutes.
One moment Garry Webb was a sea-faring fisherman, the next his trawler had slipped beneath the waves and he was marooned on an island off North Queensland waiting for help that would never have come.
It was 20 years ago the former Evans Head fisherman's trawler sunk in rough weather.
Mr Webb got a distress call out, but it reached the volunteer Coast Guard at Townsville during a shift change and got lost in the cracks. A search and rescue mission was never mounted.
Fortunately, a trawling mate of Mr Webb's was riding at anchor at the very island he and his crewmates washed up on, allowing them to hitch a ride back to shore.
However, he said the problems that allowed his distress call to slip by unnoticed in 1988 continued to threaten commercial fishers today.
Mr Webb, who these days runs the Wahoo Charters charter boat company on the Gold Coast, said technology was now in use that would have saved Michael Williams his 10-hour swim last week to alert emergency services to the loss of the Yamba-based trawler Sea Rogue, and ultimately the life of her skipper Charlie Picton.
Mr Webb said a vessel monitoring system used to stop fishing trawlers straying into protected areas could just as easily monitor the%safety of vessels.
He said a friend working the Gulf of Carpentaria using the system once drifted about 40 metres off-course. Within 20 minutes he had a fax and a satellite phone call demanding to know what he was doing, and when he reached port in Darwin officers from the Australian Federal Police were waiting for him.
"That system could be used to spot boats in distress, even if crews didn't have time to send a distress. If a boat disappeared from a system and didn't respond to calls, there was a fair chance a rescue might be needed," he said.
Mr Webb quoted official statistics saying 134 people died in Australian waters over the past three years 47 last year alone but said politicians didn't appear interested in pursuing real safety measures.