Prawn trawler crew rescued from sinking boat off Far North Queensland coast

29 Nov 2023

emergency distress beacon
The prawn trawler Santiago as it sank off the Far North Queensland coast.(Supplied: Sea Swift)

The skipper of a prawn trawler has described watching it sink off the Far North Queensland coast after a passing freighter came to the crew’s rescue.

The FV Santiago was about three kilometres offshore near Cedar Bay, south of Cooktown, on Tuesday evening when Steve Underhill found water pouring into the engine room and made the immediate call to abandon ship.

“It was way too deep to worry about pumping out,” skipper Mr Underhill said.

“We’d already lost it.”

His three crew members included another experienced skipper, but also his wife and stepson.

The Santiago crew activated an emergency distress beacon and, within 20 minutes, a Border Force plane flew over the trawler while nearby Sea Swift freighter, the Albatross Bay, mobilised to rescue the crew.

They managed to collect their personal belongings and ready a tinny and a life raft.

“We got to sit on the main boat until Sea Swift came over and picked us up and we all watched it sink,” Mr Underhill said.

“Plan B was to go on to shore, set up camp and wait for the rescue there.”

The Volunteer Coast Guard picked the crew up and took them to Cooktown.

emergency distress beacon
The crew on the Santiago were safely rescued by the Sea Swift crew on the Albatross Bay.(Supplied: Sea Swift)

“I’ve fished all my life, mate – it was pretty well controlled,” Mr Underhill said.

“Everyone was safe.”

Rescued in watermelon boxers

Prawn fishermen sleep by day and work at night, so the ordeal could have been much worse, and not only because the crew would have lost all their lights when the power went out.

“I still had pyjamas on, that was my main worry,” Mr Underhill jokingly said.

“I had my boxer shorts on with red watermelons on them. I said ‘I can’t be picked up wearing this s—t’.”

Mr Underhill said the trawler was old and likely “sprung a plank”.

“The owner had just spent a lot of money on the boat trying to get it going again for us and it was just coming together,” Mr Underhill said.

Gerard Wooldrige, captain of the Albatross Bay, said the rescue was “as smooth as it could be”.

His 10-member crew included a 24-year-old deckhand who has been on board for just three weeks.

“We do drills and we do exercises but to do it in real life is different, so everyone performed very well, very professionally,” Mr Wooldridge said.

“I’m proud of them.”

A spokesman for Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads said the priority had become to minimise any environmental damage from a potential diesel spill.

“A barge was deployed to the site on Wednesday with oil spill response equipment and tanks for the recovery of any diesel,” the spokesman said.

The trawler’s owner has been given a direction to remove the boat and a marker buoy will be placed over the wreck.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority will investigate the sinking.

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