Ballina Bar drama: Five people who were plucked from high seas off the coast of Ballina early this morning, including the crew of the town's Marine Rescue boat, were lucky to have been found at all, spokesman Elton Cummings for the Ballina Jet Boat has said. One survived by staying in an airpocket under the yacht.
Ballina Bar and Shelley Beach where the overnight drama took place. No lives were lost
Three of those people are now in Ballina Hospital after the Marine Rescue boat capsized while trying to save the yacht, leaving them stuck on the vessel's hull for about an hour while the other crew member stayed in the air pocket.
The drama began about 1am today (Monday) when the Marine Rescue was called to help a vessel struggling to get across the Ballina bar. The Marine Rescue crew tried twice to attach a tow-rope to the yacht, but each time the ropes got tangled in the vessel's propellers.
'Both boats were dragged out around the wall with the outgoing tide, and there was no time for the crew to do anything,' Marine Rescue NSW regional coordinator Stephen Reading told the http://www.northernstar.com.au!Northern_Star. 'They got hit by a couple of big waves and they were on the rocks.'
Mr Reading said the Marine Rescue crew and two crew from the stricken vessel were thrown into the water when the rescue boat flipped over. The jet boat was then called out about 2am to rescue the two crews.
At that point, the seas were running at between two metres and three metres, making it difficult to spot the yacht, the marine rescue boat, which was, by then, about two kilometres off shore, or the flashing beacons on the crew members' life jackets.
'It was only luck we found them upside down,' Mr Cummings said.
There were concerns about the crew member who remained under the boat and Mr Cummings said one of the Jet Boat crew was about to jump in the water to find him 'when he just popped up'.
The five people were transferred to the jet boat but, with so many people aboard and conditions so rough, Jet Boat skipper Mark Puglisi had decided they would not able to get safely back across the Ballina bar.
The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter had also been called out, but was unable to winch the rescued crew members to safety in the rough conditions.
By then it was about 3am and some of the Marine Rescue crew were suffering hypothermia and showing signs of going into shock, so calls were flying to find another rescue boat that could take some of the rescued crew across the bar, or another helicopter that could winch them out in the rough conditions.
'We called the Water Police, we called the Evans Head Coast Guard and they couldn't get through the Evans Head bar,' Mr Cummings said. 'No boats could get out, it (the sea) was just too big.'
Finally, about 4am, skipper Mark Puglisi felt the rescued Marine Rescue crew could wait no longer and made the decision to run the jet boat ashore at Shelly Beach, where ambulance crews were waiting to take them away.
As for the yacht and the capsized Marine Rescue boat, both remain at sea and at time of writing neither had been seen.
Mr Reading said he believed that the Marine Rescue boat was upside-down and half-sunk off Lighthouse Beach, and it was not known if it could be salvaged.
'Rescues in the dark and in bad conditions are always treacherous,' he said. 'Everyone is very shaken up.'
Update: Rescuers nominated for bravery award:
THE CREW of the Ballina Marine Rescue boat that capsized this morning while coming to the aid of a yacht in distress have been nominated for bravery awards.
Richmond Local Area Command duty officer acting Inspector Jackie Lilley said police contacted Don Stewart of the Marine Area Command at Coffs Harbour and recommended the Ballina Marine Rescue crew be nominated for bravery awards.
Acting Insp Lilley said Mr Stewart said he would recommend the crew were honored for risking their lives to prevent a tragedy.