FOR the first few hours, the feeling was euphoric.
His eyes, stinging from salt water, fixed on land and the imposing Mount Warning, which guards the NSW Far North Coast, Michael Williams was swimming on determination, shock, and adrenaline.
It had been five or six hours since he and two crew mates had cheated death escaping from a sinking prawn trawler off Byron Bay.
But not a soul knew they were out there.
The cramps hit about midday, wracking his tired body. He’d try sidestroke. Switch sides, roll on to his back. Micro-sleep. Then plough on.
It went on for more than 10 hours.
Now, a decade after collapsing semi-naked, bleeding, dehydrated and exhausted on to a Far North Coast beach, and sparking a search for his two crewmates, the Yamba man has penned the story of that marathon swim for survival.
Williams tells his story the only way he knew how — in prose, drawing on years as a songwriter and performance poet. He put his spoken-word poetry down on paper for his book of the same name as the doomed trawler: Sea Rogue.
It is, he says, a fitting tribute for the mate who didn’t make it, Sea Rogue skipper and childhood friend Alan “Charlie” Picton.
Charlie and the third member of the ill-fated Sea Rogue, John “JJ” Jarrett clung for more than 24 hours to a red plastic tub in seas off Byron Bay waiting for rescue.
“It came too late for Charlie,” Williams says, the weight of loss heavy in his voice, a decade on.
“Charlie’s body gave up eventually. JJ had to let him go.”
He sums it up in the book in simple, stark prose:
“They found JJ far out at sea,
the look on his broken, blackened face …
Where’s Charlie gone?”
As rescuers scooped up JJ after more than 30 hours in the water, Williams was in hospital, recovering from an ordeal which remains as fresh in his mind more than 10 years on as it did when it happened in 2008.
“I WOKE UP AS IT FLIPPED”
The three were on one of their regular prawn trawling trips out of Yamba when disaster struck, Williams, now 49, tells news.com.au.
“Both mine and Charlie’s dads were river fishermen, and Charlie and me went to school together,” he says.
“We lived at Yamba, and we’d motor up to Byron Bay for three days, and trawl for prawns and anchor off Byron during the day.”
On February 27, 2008, the three had finished a trawl with the nets and cleaned the decks.
Williams headed below deck “for a bit of shut-eye”.
He woke to hell breaking loose.
“I still don’t know what we hit, but as Charlie turned the boat, the nets caught on something,” he remembers.
“I woke up as it flipped, and dived through to the wheelhouse.”
Standing on the ceiling of the upturned trawler, the three frantically looked for an exit as water pooled around their ankles, and kept rising.
Williams shoved Charlie through a busted window and with the water now chest-deep wrestled himself through, ignoring the pain as the glass shredded his legs.
Lungs bursting, reeling from shock, he emerged gasping in the darkness and saw his mate.
“Charlie said ‘just come away from the boat’,” says Williams.
“We thought we’d lost JJ, but then he comes round the corner with this red plastic tub — the only one on the boat that didn’t have holes in it.
“Everything else disappeared — the paddleboards, the tinny. Just gone.”
Clinging to the tub, they watched Sea Rogue sink, and waited grimly for dawn.
“NO ONE KNOWS WE’RE OUT HERE”
They could see Byron Bay lighthouse as they floated about 16 kilometres out to sea.
Speaking quietly through the night, they realised not a soul would come looking for them — there’d be no time to get a radio call out.
“I thought” ‘no-one knows that we are out here’,” Williams says.
At first light, Williams knew they’d have to swim.
The three were just north of Byron Bay, “I said look, we have to try to get closer into the bay. We knew we were north of Byron, but floating south, and further out to sea,” he says.
“Charlie tried, but returned to JJ and the tub. JJ’s back was buggered.”
“I look into their eyes, their lives are fading thin,” he writes in his book.
“I’ve been treading water all night.
“Now I must swim”
He struck out alone.
“There was a bit of swell, it wasn’t choppy in the morning. It was actually quite beautiful — the water was nice and at first it felt quite good to be swimming,” he remembers.
Always a child of the sea, Williams was a strong swimmer. And as the mental effort took its toll, he turned to meditation techniques learned during years studying martial arts.
All that was in his mind was the image of Mount Warning, which as the hours passed in a haze of breaststroke, sidestroke, floating on his back, treading water, striking out again, slowly became tantalisingly closer.
“I didn’t see a boat the whole time I was swimming,” he says.
“Nobody. A chopper did go over when I was a couple of miles off the beach, but it didn’t see me. I raised my arm, but nothing. I thought ‘all right, just keep going’.”
It was late afternoon when he came within striking distance of land — just off the notorious Brunswick Heads bar crossing.
“I’VE SWUM ALL THIS WAY AND NOW I’M GONNA GET EATEN”
“I couldn’t believe I swam all the way and ended up in front of the Brunswick bar,” he says.
“It was like hitting a brick wall. It pushed me back out to sea.
“The water was filthy and there were bait fish jumping around everywhere.
“I thought, Christ, I’ve swum all this way and now I’m gonna get eaten.”
He hit land on a beach at nearby New Brighton.
“It’s a weird feeling when you finally touch sand after that long,” Williams says.
He crawled up the sand, half-naked, legs bloodied and shredded, wearing just a singlet.
Williams tied it around his waist after the first people he asked for help ran at the sight of him as he tried to tell them what had happened.
“I was saying, ‘I’ve got people out there’,” he says.
A woman on the beach came to his aid and raised the alarm.
The search for JJ and Charlie began, but as night fell, it was suspended.
At 7.15am the next day, 30 hours after the ordeal began, JJ was plucked from the ocean off Lennox Head.
He’d spent a horror night hallucinating: left alone with too many thoughts and too much horror when Charlie’s body gave out.
Charlie’s body has never been found
William’s book is a tribute to his lost mate, and a lasting memorial of his two crew members’ courage.
“I spoke with Charlie’s family, they seemed cool about it,” he says.
Writing helped him heal. “It was easier to write than talk about it, initially,” he says.
“Once I started performing it, it got easier.”
He remains a child of the sea, and will take his small boat out fishing, but has never set foot on a trawler again.
Williams counts his blessings a decade on, to have a family in partner, Amelia, and seven-year-old daughter, Gypsy.
“I’ll be 50 in October. and I’m glad to get to 50,” he says.
“Lots of people don’t.”
Sea Rogue: A true survivor’s tale in spoken word, is available in some book stores in Yamba, Lismore, Ballina, Grafton and Coffs Harbour, or by visiting sea-rogue.com