Road to recovery
Passionate swimmer George Harley wasn't sure if he would ever get in the pool again before the RAC Rescue helicopter arrived
By: Jane Hammond
The weather was calm when Mat Lyons, his father Wayne and friends Angus and Aaron Gibson took to the ocean for an idyllic day’s game fishing off Dirk Hartog Island back in 2013.
The November holiday was something of an annual event for Mat and Wayne Lyons so they knew the area well and the best places to catch the popular fin-fish.
They also knew how the ocean could suddenly change, so the experienced group was well prepared with life jackets, a satellite phone with a special waterproof case, and emergency beacon. Their captain Wayne Lyons (60) was especially cautious and regularly monitored the weather for any signs of change.
The trip ran to an easy daily routine of fishing in the early morning when the ocean was at its calmest and returning to shore before the winds picked up at around 9am. But on the Saturday, events suddenly took a turn for the worse.
Just as the group was thinking of heading back to shore after the morning fishing session, the engine stalled.
Dropping anchor, the group stripped the engine apart to repair it and got it started. But then it stalled again. After a second rebuild it stalled a third time and could not be fixed.
"We then knew we were in trouble,” says Mat Lyons.
“We were pretty close to the edge of Dirk Hartog Island, about 400 metres from the island where the Spanish mackerel start to come through near the edge of the Continental Shelf.
"It’s quite a brutal area as there are 60 metre cliffs that go straight up."
Unable to get a signal on the CB radio and with no other boats in the area, Mat Lyons called his wife in Perth on the satellite phone and asked her to call the island’s ranger for assistance.
However before help could come, the increasingly bad weather and rough seas made their mark - a large wave suddenly knocked the boat over, tossing all four occupants into the sea, with the vessel hitting three of the men.
Fortunately, all the men were wearing life jackets and Wayne Lyons had taken the precaution of tying the satellite phone to his body as the weather and situation had worsened.
Help was on the way - when the boat flipped the Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) had been activated, sending the message to Canberra that a vessel was in trouble off Dirk Hartog Island. However the rescue coming for them was still hours away, and all of them were now floating in rough seas near dangerous cliffs.
“We should have been worried about sharks as they had been taking fish off the lines earlier but none of us thought about that, we were more worried about the waves,” Mat Lyons said.
The group was washed towards the rocks and cliffs and three of them managed to scramble to the safety of one small rock.
Covered in cuts and coral abrasions, Mat Lyons, Aaron Gibson and Wayne Lyons could only watch on in horror as Angus Gibson (58) was washed back and forth in the massive waves, bobbing like a cork in the growing seas.
He called out to the others saying he could not feel or move his legs.
“Angus had blood rushing out of his head and was yelling to us that he had hurt his back. He was being washed in and away from us. He was in complete shock.
“The swell and waves coming through were pretty high. There was nothing we could do but watch him coming in and out.”
Eventually Angus Gibson was washed up onto the rocks and the group called again for help using the satellite phone. But the weather was turning rougher still and the tide was coming in fast.
The ranger and State Emergency Services (SES) volunteers told the men they had to get to high ground as soon as they could.
Mustering all their strength and courage, they managed to heave Angus Gibson across the reef to a small cliff where they sought refuge away from the rising tide.
He had obvious spinal injuries and moving him any further up the sheer cliff face was not possible. Exhausted, the four could only wait for help to arrive.
One of the RAC Rescue helicopters was already attending a fatal shark attack near Margaret River when it received the call. As quickly as possible the helicopter was back in the air and heading north to the stranded and injured fishermen.
In the meantime, the ranger had, by boat, made it to the area near the men but the seas were too hazardous to reach the men on their rocky outcrop.
Only a helicopter could safely get in and out.
Fortunately, an RAC Rescue helicopter was able to land on the small flat clearing near the men and successfully rescued the four. Angus Gibson was flown to Geraldton and then on to Perth while the others were treated at the scene and flown to Denham.
It took Angus Gibson a full year of rehabilitation before he was able to return to his work as a pilot. However, he's not only flying again but still goes out fishing with mates.
“We were the luckiest, unlucky guys out there. For us to be washed up on a place where we could climb to an area that was out of the water was quite lucky.
“The RAC Rescue helicopter was crucial. It was so isolated on that island and we couldn’t get back down to the water because it was too dangerous to get on a boat. The only way out was a helicopter. But all of the emergency services were fantastic. It was a big group effort.
“We did everything right except we didn’t have a spare engine. When the boat flipped it was insane. We are very lucky to have survived.
"We now take a spare motor with its own fuel supply."
Funded by the State Government, the RAC Rescue helicopters are managed by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) and sponsored by RAC.
Your RAC membership helps us sponsor the RAC Rescue helicopters, which fly life-saving missions every hour of every day.
As a membership organisation we don’t have shareholders, which means we can reinvest our profits for the better of our members and the WA community.