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Missing SA boaties safe and well after largest sea search in SA history

By Eugene Boisvert and Patrick Martin, Thursday September 10, 2020 - 18:50 EST
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A South Australian police launch alongside the Margrel, with Tony Higgins and Derek Robinson on board. - ABC

Two men who were reported missing after their boat have been found safe and well, with one reunited with his family.

A police launch found Goolwa men Tony Higgins, 57, and Derek Robinson, 48, on board their boat the Margrel off Salt Creek about 9:00am this morning.

The men left Coffin Bay, on the Eyre Peninsula, last Thursday, and had not been heard from since Friday, when they reported propeller trouble.

They were reported missing by a friend on Sunday, but made contact with authorities late last night, just hours after an air and sea search had been called off.

While Derek Robinson went ashore this afternoon, his mate Tony Higgins stayed on the 10-metre wooden-hulled boat, called Margrel, anchored off Granite Island.

"I feel fine, I've been doing this s*** all my life, it's only everyone else who's freaking out," Mr Higgins said to media who journeyed out to see him.

"This is not my first rodeo, I've been out in cyclones, this is just a walk in the park."

He thanked the rescue teams who went looking for the pair but was confident of making it back without them.

"If they hadn't turned up, I'd have been sneaking through the channel, up the river, I'd be parked on the jetty now swilling beer!"

The search over the past four days covered more than 120,000 square kilometres, with help from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), Royal Australian Air Force and Kangaroo Island and Volunteer Marine Rescue, as well as police.

The boat had been taking on water and Mr Higgins said he would stay on it until he was sure it would not sink.

Mr Higgins has copped a $1,000 fine for having an out-of-date Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and for also having only expired flares on board.

SA Police also discovered Mr Higgins did not hold an appropriate recreational boat licence.

An emotional reunion

Derek Robinson arrived back on shore at Encounter Bay to be reunited with his family about 2:00pm this afternoon.

"It feels very emotional to see them," Mr Robinson said.

"It was rough, rocky, I don't think I felt scared, just isolated — I felt the world didn't exist cause we were out in the middle of nowhere."

He said the pair had no idea about the massive search operation.

"It was good they [the police] came along, we had no idea they were looking for us."

"I fell in the drink off the wharf on the first night … so my phone was buggered the whole way through," Mr Robinson said.

He said while he went on this trip for a "change of scenery" he'd think again before jumping in a boat.

"We'll see what happens, see where the next adventure takes me."

Largest search in SA's history

Superintendent Mark Sairney said the search effort was the largest of its kind in the state's history.

"These men are extremely lucky, the ocean they were travelling on from Port Lincoln across to Kangaroo Island is quite difficult to navigate," Superintendent Sairney said.

"It's certainly a good news story."

The men responded to a text message from police when they re-entered phone range last night.

Both men were unharmed in the ordeal — something Superintendent Sairney said was surprising.

"What's more surprising is that for an anticipated journey that the gentleman had, not to have appropriate communications and safety equipment," he said.

"They didn't believe they were in danger, but looking at a few factors such as the age and condition of the boat, the lack of adequate safety equipment, it is very much a surprise that they managed to travel the distance they did."

The boat was being brought back to Goolwa for renovations.

Anxious wait at dock

Mr Robinson's brother, Ian, spoke to reporters this morning and described his brother as an inexperienced sailor, but said that Mr Higgins did know his way around a boat.

Waiting at a dock in Encounter Bay, he said he never gave up hope that his brother would be found.

"[I'm] ecstatic, over the moon, couldn't be happier," he said.

"It's just been an overwhelming experience — your brother's missing and suddenly he rocks up. You can't explain it in words."

He said it was an "adventure of a lifetime" and he was anxious to see his brother.

"I just can't wait to see him. I don't know if I want to hug him or kick the s*** out of him," he said.

Mr Robinson's 26-year-old son Ashley said he felt the search was called off too early, but now he was just happy to see his father.

"It's just really good to know he's safe and will be back soon," he said.

"Thanks to everyone who's helped."

One of the 'worst stretches' of coast

Goolwa Regatta Yacht Club commodore Randall Cooper said similar good outcomes had happened before.

"Over the years we've had boats go missing out on Lake Alexandrina and the worst was feared, but they've been found tied up in the reeds funnily enough drinking cocoa and eating crumpets," he said.

"You never take the big lakes and the ocean for granted.

"It can change within hours from beautiful to horrible, and where they've been it's some of the worst stretches around the Australian coast you can go to."

Alexandrina Mayor Keith Parkes said the men were lucky to be found considering the "treacherous waters" of the Southern Ocean.

"They're so lucky. We had been following the story hoping they're OK," Mr Parkes said.

"We just can't believe how lucky they are to have been found."

Jacina Te Rito, who works with Mr Robinson at a local supermarket, said staff "can't wait to catch up with him when he's ready and hear about his crazy adventure".

"Derek's a down-to-earth, genuine, gypsy-at-heart guy who doesn't have a bad word to say about anybody," Ms Te Rito said.

"[He is] an adventurer and young at heart with a love of wide open spaces and photography."


© ABC 2020

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