MYSTERY AT SEA: Inquest into sailor's disappearance
A "UNIQUE and strong-minded" sailor who disappeared last year died at sea by natural causes or misadventure, an inquest has found.
Keith Jones, 65, had not been seen since he set sail from Hervey Bay Boat Club Marina on his Wayfarer yacht on February 15 last year.
The 9.75 metre fibreglass vessel, which he'd owned for more than 25 years, turned up near the beach at Iluka, some 570km from his departure point, five days later.
Despite an ocean and air search, Mr Jones was never found.
An inquest into his disappearance and suspected death was recently held before the Coroner's Court in Byron Bay.
Deputy State Coroner Harriet Grahame heard from loved ones who recalled the "distress and grief" of Mr Jones' disappearance and said it was "clear... Keith is greatly missed".
Ms Grahame said Mr Jones, from Urangan, had worked in the marine industry and suffered from constant pain, but was an "able yachtsman" despite this and had "extensive experience" including "several long solo voyages along the east coast".
"He was described as "a jack of all trades" and was competent in all aspects of yacht maintenance," she said.
"Keith had a long standing passion for sailing and a true love of the sea."
Friends to whom he'd disclosed "increasing discomfort and reported trouble sleeping" became worried when they hadn't heard from Mr Jones for some days, and reported him missing on February 19.
When Mr Jones departed Hervey Bay, weather stirred up by Tropical Cyclone Gita was lashing the Queensland coast.
Ms Grahame said bay's sheltered waters may have belied the rough conditions offshore.
"It is impossible to know the precise passage taken by the Wayfarer but it is most likely ... the vessel would have experienced gale force winds and seas exceeding four metres," Ms Grahame said.
"These conditions would have been extremely hazardous for any crew, but especially dangerous for a solo sailor hampered by physical disability and pain."
When it was boarded by NSW Maritime authorities at Iluka, the yacht's structure was undamaged but its condition suggested it had "recently experienced harsh weather".
While Mr Jones' body was never recovered, Ms Grahame found he had died in the ocean.
She said it was unclear whether this was caused by "injury, a medical emergency, drowning or a combination of these factors".
"Given the prevailing weather conditions, Keith may have simply been swept off board and drowned at sea," she said.
"He may have suffered some kind of medical emergency, prior to falling into the sea."