Chokka boat survivors describe terror at sea

A member of the rescue team knocks on the hull of the capsized chokka fishing vessel in the hope of finding more survivors inside
Picture: Werner Hills

Eight still missing after search called off due to bad weather conditions

I just prayed and prayed and prayed – this is how a rescued fisherman from a capsized chokka boat described the three terrifying hours he spent fighting for his life in rough, icy seas off Cape St Francis in the early hours of yesterday.

Andane Bobi, 24, the youngest crew member aboard the stricken vessel, the Maredon, was speaking from his bed in the Humansdorp Provincial Hospital.

He and three other crewmen were being treated at the hospital for hypothermia after their vessel capsized at about 1.30am during its maiden voyage.

The four crew members, who were among seven known survivors, were anxiously awaiting news on eight other fishermen who were still missing after searchand-rescue efforts were called off at about 1pm due to worsening weather conditions.

One fisherman has been confirmed dead so far.

Officials search for survivors
Picture: Werner Hills

Bobi said he had been on deck talking with another crewman when he felt the vessel roll to the side.

“It was rolling from side to side.

“But then it rolled to that angle where you just know it is not going to roll back upright again,” he said.

“I just grabbed a life jacket and jumped.

“It was terrible and terrifying.

“I was just praying and praying and praying.”

The boat capsized between 1km and 2km offshore, near Thyspunt between Cape St Francis and Oyster Bay.

The overturned vessel eventually washed up against the rocks near Sunset Rock, with the hull protruding above the waterline.

Rescue workers then banged on the hull with a rock and later cut a section open in the hope of finding more survivors, but to no avail.

The Port St Francis-based vessel, the newest of the Balobi Fishing company’s 11-strong fleet of fish and chokka (squid) boats, had 16 crew members onboard, some of whom were sleeping below deck when a combination of strong winds and huge swells capsized the vessel, according to the survivors.

“It rolled to that angle where you just know it is not going to roll back,” Andane Bobi said.
Picture: Werner Hills

Supported by at least two family members as he lay under blankets in the hospital, fisherman Welcome Gumede, 46, said he had been trapped under the boat for some time after it capsized, but managed to get out later when the vessel ran aground. “I was all alone there,” he said.

“It was terrible, but I am glad I got out.”

Gumede said the incident had been caused by large waves and a strong westerly wind.

The boat had been at sea for six days, having left the port on its first fishing expedition on Monday.

National Sea Rescue Institute spokesman Craig Lambinon said police had opened an inquest docket and the South African Maritime Safety Authority was investigating.

The search for the missing fishermen was expected to continue at first light this morning. Lambinon said another chokka boat, Silver Eagle, had raised the alarm after seeing red distress flares, calling the Telkom Maritime Radio Services and the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre.

The Silver Eagle and Megalodon, which is part of the Balobi fleet, sailed to the scene, where the Megalodon managed to rescue one crewman from the water.

“NSRI St Francis Bay launched the sea rescue craft Spirit of St Francis II into rough sea conditions with 6m swells and a gusting 50-knot westerly wind and rain,” Lambinon said.

The police, ambulance services and NSRI from Jeffreys Bay, Oyster Bay and Port Elizabeth all responded.

“[The body of] one deceased fisherman was recovered on the shore in the vicinity of Sunset Rock and five survivors were found on the beach there,” Lambinon said.

One survivor was spotted climbing out of the overturned vessel and was brought to shore by NSRI rescue swimmers before being airlifted to hospital.

Dressed in green hospital clothes, shoeless and showing signs of shock, 48-year-old Ernest Maga, of Port Elizabeth, said he had been asleep when the vessel rolled.

“I woke up and the water was coming in fast. I just grabbed a life jacket and ran,” he said.

“I managed to get into a life raft and that is how I managed to survive.”

Maga, who described being “freezing cold and barely able to move”, said he had lost his clothes, shoes and everything he had on the vessel.

He said the boat had been sailing to port to take shelter from the wind at the time.

“I am not sure exactly where we were positioned, but I believe we were about a mile from the shore when the boat rolled.”

Maga revealed that he had survived a similar incident in the Western Cape a few years ago.

Bobi said he had seen lights from another boat in the distance, but it “looked like it was kilometres away” and he felt he would not be able to swim the distance to reach the vessel.

“I was alone there in the water – it was a scary experience,” Bobi said.

He was eventually picked up by the Megalodon a few hours later.

“I was so happy to be picked up,” he said.

“Even though I was trying to keep moving to keep alive, I could hardly feel my body or move when they picked me up.”

“I could hardly feel my body or move when they picked me up,” Bobi said.
Picture: Werner Hills

Kabelo Lebeloane, 34, said he worked as a mechanic on the boat and had been asleep when the drama unfolded.

“It was really bad and we are lucky to have survived.

“I got a life jacket as quickly as I could and then I got into a life raft.

“Even the life raft also capsized at one point, but I managed to survive and get to shore. “It was a very terrifying experience.” Balobi Group managing director Mark Rowe did not respond to phone messages or e-mails requesting comment yesterday.

Kouga mayor Elza van Lingen said: “Our deepest condolences go to the family of the fisherman who drowned.

“Our prayers are with those still waiting for news of their loved ones.”

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