Fisherman tells of sea rescue

A FATHER and son who were forced to abandon their home-made houseboat in dark seas before drifting for hours without flares are extremely lucky to be alive, their fisherman rescuer said today.

A FATHER and son who were forced to abandon their home-made houseboat in dark seas before drifting for hours without flares are extremely lucky to be alive, their fisherman rescuer said today.

Experienced trawler Gary Haggis said David Hunter, 17, was in the first stages of hypothermia when he pulled him and his father, Neil Hunter, 47, from their stricken life raft in the early hours of yesterday.

The father and son, who were on passage from Maldon to Wales, had to abandon their 50ft concrete houseboat, The Persistent Whisper, when it ran aground on sandbanks miles off Walton-on-the-Naze shortly before 3.30am.

The pair, who had no flares and one life jacket between them, were not able to use their VHF radio and resorted to dialling 999 from their mobile phone.

But a weak mobile signal caused the line to go dead before their location could be pinpointed.

As reported in yesterday's Evening Star, mobile operator Orange calculated rough co-ordinates about three miles offshore, triggering a massive search involving police, two lifeboats and a RAF Wattisham helicopter.

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However, the Hunters were actually 12 miles off Walton, rather than three, and increasingly cold and desperate as their raft drifted in choppy seas.

Luckily, Mr Haggis, 54, and his son, Mark, 27, had decided to trawl in that area for the first time in three months.

They had just cast their nets from their vessel, True to the Core, near the Longsands off Walton when Gary Haggis became aware of a problem.

"I noticed radar contact the wrong side of Black Deep number 2 buoy, but there were no lights that we could see – we didn't know there was anything wrong," said Mr Haggis, from Kirby Cross.

"We thought there was some small fishing vessel in shallow waters as you sometimes get, but then daylight broke about 3.30am and I thought 'things don't look right with that boat' – it wasn't going forward."

They steamed their vessel towards it and heard Thames Coastguard reports that someone was overboard and someone had sunk.

He added: "It was supposed to be four miles off Walton, but we were 12 miles off Walton, so they were well out with that location.

"We kept on going to the boat and at about 5am we spotted a smaller life raft drifting about three-quarters-of-a mile away, so we steamed towards that and got the two people on board with us.

"The young lad was in a fairly bad way, in the first stages of hypothermia."

The helicopter was diverted and winched them up before flying them to Colchester General Hospital, from where they were later discharged.

Mr Haggis added: "Those people were very lucky. If we'd not spotted them, the search would have been going on eight miles away. The seas were choppy and their lifeboat could well have gone under too.

"The father told me that according to his charts, he thought he should have been in 13ft of water, but he was well on the wrong side of where he should've been. Maybe he had old charts, but I think more likely he made a mistake. I'm just pleased we got them."

A six-man Walton lifeboat crew found the abandoned houseboat, which had taken more than 10 years to build, aground and taking on water near the Black Deep channel, but shortly after 6.15am it sank.

Lifeboat crew member Karl Bigwood said: "Once it started sinking, it went under in about three seconds. They were extremely lucky.

"They had no flares and only one life jacket between the two of them – it was all a bit of a shambles.

"They would've been very difficult to find and could easily have been left drifting for hours, if not days, undetected."

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