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Trimaran unsalvageable after hitting rocks - VMR deny help

by Melissa Woods, Daily Mercury/Sail-World on 30 Apr 2011
Fremantle Dokta still afloat - photo Tenille De Brueys SW
Once again the scope of Australian rescue authorities to assist yachts in trouble after their crew have abandoned them was called into question by a leisure sailor who lost his trimaran to rocks and waves last week.

Dr Chris Murcutt lost his $20,000 trimaran after it sank off the Mackay Harbour last week after it sprang a leak and couldn't be returned to the Mackay marina.


What was meant to be a relaxing day on the water, turned into a disaster for Dr Chris Murcutt, who had spent the afternoon sailing outside the Mackay Harbour on his trimaran, the Fremantle Dokta.

'We were heading over to Slade Point and it was such a beautiful day,' he said. 'I’ve been wanting to sail it since Christmas and this was the first chance I had.'

But the journey was stopped in its tracks as the trimaran started to leak. 'The motor and the battery got wet. I was planning to sail it back into the harbour but I didn’t have full steerage.'

Dr Murcutt said he rang the Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR) for assistance. 'We parked it in a safe place outside the marina and away from the shipping channel,' he said. 'We were told not to bring it into the marina by the Port Authority.'

Dr Murcutt said while waiting for VMR, a nearby fisherman came to help and took the bags and people off the trimaran. 'VMR said they would check it that afternoon,' Dr Murcutt said.

However, he returned the next day to find the trimaran unsalvageable. 'I think it hit the rocks overnight,' he said.

Dr Murcutt was obviously not happy with the fact that the VMR had not rescued the boat before it hit rocks. 'I had about ten people and fishermen on the beach helping to pull it into shore over the Easter weekend and picking up the pieces of the boat – they were more help than the authorities.'

It's not the first time that Dr Murcutt had struck trouble with his boat. It needed a major rebuild mid-2010, after he and his crew lost the mast and sails near Keswick Islant off Mackay. 'It was a bit breezy but there was no real fault,' Chris said after the incident.

Built in 1980, Fremantle Dokta was at that time believed to have suffered boat fatigue, but after some TLC from Chris and numerous favours called in, Fremantle Dokta raised her sails at Sunferries Magnetic Island Race Week in September.

Of the latest debacle, he commented 'I’m pretty devastated.' However, president of Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR) Mackay Charlie Brownlow said due to the nature of the job, VMR was unable to help.

'Those in the boat hopped in a dinghy and came into the boat ramp to advise us that the boat was floating outside the harbour and they wanted us to help,' he said. 'The reason we couldn’t offer help was that it would have been a salvage job and our skippers are not qualified to do that work.'

Mr Brownlow said it was important to inform the public that VMR was there to save those in immediate danger, but could not 'salvage' boats. These issues were raised when the Queensland floods broke dozens of boats from their moorings in rivers from the Burdekin to the Brisbane, and the VMR were powerless by their charter to rescue the unmanned vessels.

Letter received from reader:

Sender: Richard Davison

Message: I feel sorry for the owner of this vessel, and can understand the frustration regarding this type of event. As a rescue skipper driving a govt. funded rescue craft I can assure everyone that the charter for a rescue craft is very very clear. We are to save lives, while at no time putting our own lives or vessel at unnecessary risk. We will normally do this by taking a vessel in distress under tow, or if the situation dictates, we will take the crew from the stricken vessel - after this there is no way as a funded rescue craft we can have any part to play in a commercial salvage operation - it is simply not possible from a charter point of view.

Perhaps this is the fundamental misapprehension that often occurs when this situation happens. The ONLY reason we launch a rescue vessel is that there is a current or potential risk to life, and the law clearly directs that the rescuing vessel has only to save the lives of the ones in trouble not their property, unless it is fair and reasonable to do so.

As a boater all my life, including many years of commercial fishing, I can promise that I never want to see a boat be wrecked or abandoned if I feel I can do something about it - that is a feeling that is bone deep to me and I strongly believe all reasonable efforts must be made to preserve any vessel. If an abandoned or unmanned vessel is a hazard to navigation, and it is feasible and the risk to the rescue craft acceptable I will attempt to secure that vessel.

However I feel that in this case the issue of saving the crew had become moot. They had already left the vessel, and the vessel was in some way moored. That is when the owner immediately has to contact private vessel or commercial operators to get a salvage under way, and frankly is the main justification you insure your boat in the first place. The rescue service is mandated to be at all times ready to act to save lives, as such it cannot be entering into commercial pursuits - such as salvage efforts on a vessel that is not a risk to navigation, nor that has any obvious immediate or possible future threat to life. The immediate reaction from my point of view is to find the nearest reasonable beach and drive the boat onto it. If it's a surf beach maybe not - but given the end result even that might have been safer for the boat!

I shudder to think of the abuse heaped on any rescue crew that was fiddling around with a non-threatening situation and found themselves late to a critical emergency. That is the other side of the story that seems rarely spoken on.

As a commercial skipper I have been involved in a few rescues over the years. When in that situation the owner of the boat has to give full permission for the vessel to be used to tow a broken down vessel. Only the saving of lives is something the master will act on without seeking permission of the owner. Before any tow happens there will be a clear offer of a standard Lloyds Contract, or a clear agreement of cost recovery before any tow will begin. If it would cost me a couple of grand to not fish that night then that is what I will be charging you - large boats might cost you many times this. That's the commercial reality, and individuals on the water will vary hugely in what they want or will do.

The fact is that if the owner of the vessel is the state govt. or a similar authority, and that authority has put out a clear set of directions and SOPs for the master and crew of the vessel - that is what will be carried out.

Cheers,

Richard Davison.

Skipper - Port Lincoln SES rescue vessel YAKATA.

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