Eight Indonesian fishermen feared drowned; 11 rescued off Australian coast

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In this photo provided by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, fishermen from Indonesia stand on a beach on Bedwell Island, 313 km west of Broome, Australia, on April 17, 2023.

In this photo provided by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, fishermen from Indonesia stand on a beach on Bedwell Island, 313 km west of Broome, Australia, on April 17, 2023.
| Photo Credit: AP

Eight Indonesian fishermen are feared drowned and another 11 have been rescued after spending six days without food or water on a barren island off the northwest Australian coast after a powerful tropical cyclone, authorities said on April 19.

Two primitive wooden Indonesian fishing boats were caught in the path of Cyclone Ilsa, which made landfall on Friday as Australia’s most powerful storm in eight years, with winds gusting at an apparent record of 289 km (180 miles) per hour.

One of the boats, Putri Jaya, sank in “extreme weather conditions” on April 11 or 12 while Ilsa was gathering strength over the Indian Ocean and heading toward the coast, Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement, citing survivors.

“The other boat, Express 1, ran aground with 10 men aboard in the early hours of April 12 on Bedwell Island, a sandy outcrop some 300 km (200 miles) west of the Australian coastal tourist town of Broome,” the authority said.

“The only known survivor from the Putri Jaya spent 30 hours in the water before washing ashore on the same island,” the statement said.

“They all remained (on Bedwell Island) for six days without food and water before being rescued on Monday night,” the authority said.

The Putri Jaya survivor used a fuel can to stay afloat at sea, Indonesian officials told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The survivors were spotted on Monday by the Australian Border Force, which patrols Australia’s northern approaches for smuggling and other illegal activity, from a plane on a routine surveillance mission. A Broome-based rescue helicopter was deployed and winched all 11 aboard in failing light.

Gordon Watt, a manager at helicopter provider PHI Aviation, said the rescue helicopter crew had been unable to land on the sand.

“They had to conduct winch recoveries which, in itself, is a challenging task,” Mr. Watt said. “The time of day meant that nightfall was upon the crew during the rescue, so they had to transition to using night vision goggles.”

The survivors were taken to Broome Hospital where Border Force said in a statement they were reported to “be in good health despite their ordeal.” They have been flown from Broome to the northern city of Darwin from where they will be flown back to Indonesia, the statement said. Indonesian authorities have been notified.

“This incident highlights the dangers of undertaking journeys in small boats unsuited to rough seas and adverse weather events, both of which are common in Australia’s northern waters,” the statement added.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which manages searches and rescues in Australian waters, did not immediately respond on Wednesday when asked if there had been a search for other potential survivors. Bedwell Island is part of the Rowley Shoals, a group of three coral reefs.

The missing Indonesian fishermen are expected to be the only fatalities from Ilsa, which was a maximum Category 5 cyclone when it crossed the Pilbara region coast of Western Australia state southwest of Broome.

A gust of 289 kph (180 mph) recorded on an island off the Pilbara coast was the fastest ever recorded by Australia’s weather bureau equipment in the country.

While the reading remains preliminary and requires further analysis, the bureau said on Tuesday it beats the previous record of 267 kph (166 mph) set by Cyclone Vance on the Pilbara coast in 1999.

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