I changed into suitable working gear in case there were casualties and went up to the bridge to watch proceedings. The atmosphere was tense. I stood in a corner looking out over the wide expanse of lonely dark blue sea, empty except for a few white caps, listening to calls from the Australian search and rescue plane and the HMAS Parramatta. Eight of the crew scanned the sea intently, five with binoculars. It came to me then that the drills we had done were for real. That wide empty sea that looks so benign is also deadly.
Suddenly a seaman shouted. Small craft on the starboard side!’ We slowed, but it was a fishing vessel. In time we neared the area of the distress call and received a chilling message from the plane No ship sighted, search now for survivors’. The ship had sunk! I was shocked. It had not occurred to me that we might be too late. Another message came that life rafts had been sighted and the Parramatta was now coming to collect them We were told to continue looking for survivors and we did so until the aircraft told us we were released from the search and rescue effort and could return to our course.
Bagan Myanmar Map Photo Gallery
The captain told me later that it had been 14 degrees in the water and that the ship had gone down about the time the call came, five hours before help arrived too long to stay alive at that temperature, he said. He looked upset. Some people had most likely died. Maybe he blamed himself for not getting there sooner.
It took many hours to get back to our correct position, but there was no word of complaint from the crew. One day another ship might have to come to their rescue. This is the unwritten law of the sea. I had wondered why so many crew had been needed to look for as big an item as a ship but now I realised that they had known what I did not that a ship that had begun to sink hours beforehand had very likely sunk by then. What they had been searching for so diligently were people in the water. In Australia later I heard news reports that said five people were known to have drowned when this ship sank but that possibly there had been more.
Four days later we reached Fremantle. There was a long shore leave here and I was able to spend all day and evening catching up with old friends. It was a beautiful sunny day and as I walked around the streets of the port waiting to be collected I was impressed with how much Fremantle had gone ahead in the years since I had lived in Perth and worked at the Fremantle hospital. I was driven up to Perth along the well-remembered road I used to travel every day, happy to see familiar sites. We had a lovely time and I did not return back on board until late that night.
Then the Buxstar sailed out into the Great Australian Bight and I was on my way home again.