Rescue from ocean a race against time

Albany Advertiser

It has been 40 years since South Australian tourist Stephen Mathews was rescued from the Gap by the Cheynes II. The Albany Advertiser recalls the dramatic rescue, as told by those involved at the time.

The survivor

Stephen Mathews.
Camera IconStephen Mathews.

South Australian tourist Stephen Mathews had hitchhiked from Ravensthorpe to Albany and with his early 21st birthday present, a new camera, ventured down to Natural Bridge.

Mr Mathews had climbed down below the bridge when a king wave rolled in.

As he tried to run back from the water, he was sucked in as he slid down the rock face.

“The drop seemed about 15 feet, then I went under the white water,” he said.

“I came up and went down again and I thought I was gone.”

The rescuer and good fortune

His friends found a ranger and called police at 5.45pm after he had been in the water for 15 minutes.

A new friend flagged down a car. The driver was the wife of Cheynes Beach radio operator Gordon Cruickshank.

Minutes later, the Cheynes II was called by radio.

Radio contact was usually unlikely when the whale chasers headed back from an unsuccessful day, but skipper Paddy Hart luckily answered.

“He got washed in at the Gap and they got in contact with the station and the station got in contact with the whale chasers and we were the closest to the situation so we turned off and went,” Mr Hart recalled in 2012.

Cheynes II.
Camera IconCheynes II. Credit: Albany’s Historic Whaling Station

“It was very chaotic there because we had the police on the beach communicating, the plane above who was communicating with us and the whaling station was also communicating with us but they were on three different frequencies.

“We had only one transmitter, so it was very confusing.

“I decided we wouldn’t be able to see anything because we were only looking for something that was literally the size of a man’s head — we were very close inshore, closer than we should have been.”

He ordered a shutdown of the engine and to turn the radios off.

“We had a searchlight up the mast and the man in the barrel (crow’s nest) actually heard the man in the water and we managed to get the search light onto him,” Mr Hart said.

“We took a sweep in there to get him but we were too far off him so the first mate, Keith Richardson, tied a rope around his waist and dived in and grabbed him, and dragged him back on board.

“Not many people come back from falling off the Gap.”

The rescue

Keith Richardson and Paddy Hart after the rescue in 1978.
Camera IconKeith Richardson and Paddy Hart after the rescue in 1978.

Light and hopes were fading fast.

Then Mr Mathews heard the spotter plane roaring over the swells, spotlights blazing.

Then more lights. The chaser — and the race against time and darkness was in the last lap.

It was win or lose for the man in the water.

Bleeding from his cuts, but feeling no pain, weak and just keeping afloat, Mr Mathews had not thought once about the white pointer sharks the Cheynes II crewman were later to tell him about.

He’d been in the water nearly two hours when the chaser loomed close enough for him to yell out: “help”. High up in the barrel of the Cheynes II, Colin Westerberg heard the call and with the keen eyesight praised by skipper Paddy Hart, he spotted the man in the water.

Mate Keith Richardson stripped off, grabbed the lifeline and went over the side as Mr Hart held the chaser against the sea.

The Natural Bridge is prone to dangerous king waves.
Camera IconThe Natural Bridge is prone to dangerous king waves. Credit: Brad Harkup

At 7.15pm good luck, keen eyes, bravery and split second timing plucked Mr Mathews from a cold death, only minutes away.

Luck and circumstance aside, without the clear thinking and perfect timing of all concerned , it would have been a different ending.

Extracts from Albany Advertiser, March 15, 1978 16/3/1978 written by Leith Phillips and 2012 by Marc Simojoki.

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