‘We aren’t a free towing service’: responders hit back after couple vents frustration at Abrolhos rescue

Michael RobertsMidwest Times

A Jurien Bay couple who had to spend $5000 getting towed to Geraldton 36 hours after their yacht ran into trouble off the Abrolhos Islands say they felt “abandoned” by rescue services.

But emergency responders involved in the incident have hit back, with Geraldton Marine Rescue saying they aren’t a free towing service if people’s lives aren’t at risk.

Penelope Highlands and her husband took a trip to the Abrolhos Islands about six months ago on their 50ft yacht Kyleah.

Their boat ran into engine problems on the day they decided to return to Jurien Bay and was blown dangerously close to a section of reef.

A nearby cray fishing vessel saved the boat from running aground, with a DPIRD Fisheries vessel responding to an EPIRB distress signal soon after.

Ms Highlands said she asked for the yacht to be towed back to Geraldton port but the DPIRD crew refused.

DPIRD Fisheries board the yacht after towing the vessel to Middle Island.
Camera IconDPIRD Fisheries board the yacht after towing the vessel to Middle Island. Credit: Supplied/Supplied

DPIRD took the yacht to a safe mooring on the Islands, with Ms Highlands and her husband stuck there overnight.

“It was shabby to be just left out there,” Ms Highlands said.

“We didn’t feel safe. It wasn’t somewhere we could fix the boat.

“They didn’t understand the isolation of being out on a mooring.”

DPIRD Mid West regional compliance director Mick Kelly said the crew was left with little choice in rough conditions.

“It was unsafe to tow the yacht to any other location at that time,” he said.

“Before our vessel departed, checks were made with the couple on the yacht to ensure that they had no injuries and that they had sufficient food and water on board and were securely fastened to the mooring.

The Master and crew on the PV Chalmers appropriately assisted a vessel in distress, as per maritime laws.”

Penelope Highlands and her husband’s 50ft yacht Kyleah.
Camera IconPenelope Highlands and her husband’s 50ft yacht Kyleah. Credit: Supplied/Penelope Highlands and her husband’s 50ft yacht, Kyleah., Supplied

Ms Highlands asked Marine Rescue Geraldton if they could tow the yacht to Geraldton but that request was also turned down.

Marine Rescue Geraldton commander Damien Healy said its vessel, Nashira, was too small to help.

“We are only allowed to tow a vessel up to 8 tonne in the right sea conditions,” he said.

“If the skipper chooses to tow a vessel that is larger, then they can be investigated and prosecuted by AMSA.

“We were advised by water police that we were not to organise a tow vessel and that as they were now safe, it was their responsibility to organise a tow back.”

Ms Highlands ended up paying $5000 for a private charter to take the yacht into Geraldton the next day.

She said it was an incredibly stressful experience and she doesn’t “feel safe on the ocean anymore”.

“They need a strategy to bring disabled vessels back to a place we can facilitate repairs,” she said.

Mr Healy said volunteer organisations such as his could only do so much.

“If your car broke down, would you call an emergency service to tow you home for free or would you call a tow truck and pay for it?” he said.

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