$300 personal EPIRB device saves two men capsized at sea off Portland’s Cape Bridgewater

Mar 26, 2023


When Pieter Badenhorst and his mate hooked a big tuna off their 7-metre tinny, it looked to be the perfect day. 

It was a Friday morning, about 5 kilometres off the coast of Portland and fishing conditions were good, slightly windy, but nothing to worry about.

But a rogue wave ended the day’s rosiness within a matter of seconds, and almost ended their lives. 

“We were out in Portland chasing some of the barrel tuna, and hooked one,” Mr Badenhorst said.

“We were an hour-and-a-half into this fight when a rogue wave crashed over the back of the boat, filled it, and within 15 seconds turned the boat upside down.”

“At that stage, we had to jump.”

The two men leapt from their boat into the ocean, and the next issue facing Mr Badenhorst was that he and the extremely large and powerful tuna that was hooked on his rod were still connected.

“After jumping in, I was still connected to the fish, so I had to get rid of the harness and the rod.”

$300 well spent 

Both men were wearing life jackets, but all of the required safety equipment that would help search and rescue teams find them was trapped underneath the boat, which was upturned and impossible to flip.

“It would have been difficult to get to the flares and EPIRB still on the boat,” Mr Badenhorst said. 

“As I do go out alone a fair bit, I had invested the $300 to have this extra beacon that I can wear on myself and if it wasn’t for that, things could have looked a lot different for us,” he said.

When Mr Badenhorst activated his personal EPIRB, it set off a chain of communication that began with his wife, Michelle Badenhorst, who was working on their winery and distillery near Macarthur, Victoria. 

The rescue coordination centre contacted Ms Badenhorst to make sure that the beacon had been intentionally set off and then transferred the distress call to the police after which all the emergency services came into play.

“I’m so glad I picked up that phone call because I thought it was a spam call and I nearly didn’t pick it up,” Ms Badenhorst said.

After answering questions about her husband’s age and vessel type, and confirming this was a real emergency, the reality sank in.

“I closed the cellar door after scaring a few customers with my tears, and picked up our two-year-old from daycare before driving down towards Portland,” Ms Badenhorst said.

She said the next few hours of waiting to know if her husband was drowned or not were terrifying. 

“It was the scariest time. I found comfort in the fact that Pieter always puts safety first, but knew accidents happen and can happen to anyone — even him,” she said.

“It was very surreal and thoughts of hope were swept under by thoughts of despair throughout the two-and-a-half-hour ordeal,” Ms Badenhorst said.

The anxiety of thinking that her husband may have drowned slips out in her voice, which still shakes when she relays that period of unknown.

“Prayers kept me grounded and calm, but I grew more stressed as the hours went by with no updates,” she said.


Adrift at sea, invisible to passing vessels

The two fishers had managed to clamber aboard the upturned hull but felt that the swell was drifting them towards land in the direction of Cape Bridgewater, which might land them against rugged cliffs.

“We didn’t want to be trapped against those cliffs, as there wouldn’t be any place for us to land, so we were really at the mercy of the sea,” Mr Badenhorst said. 

While they drifted, clutching to smooth metal as waves rocked them every 10 seconds, they tried to flag down passing boats.

“We saw boats the whole time around us but they couldn’t see us,” said Mr Badenhorst, who says he kept Michelle and his two daughters front of mind, to aid his survival.

“There was a lot of reflection that I have to survive to go back to them.”

Apart from continually assessing their situation and available options, Mr Badenhorst said the chat between him and his mate was considerably cheerful. 

“The mood was actually very light considering our situation, with a few jokes cracked about the fish that got away and if our wives would ever allow us to fish again!” 

Police Air Wing, the Water Police Squad, and the local Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) aircraft set out to search for the pair, but it was a local charter fishing boat that saved them. 

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