Fisherman Will Fransen says he’s “grateful to be alive” after enduring a gruelling 23.5 hours at sea – without a lifejacket on – off Whangamatā.
Fransen had set off on the solo fishing trip aboard his 40-foot boat around 10am on January 2, with the intention of returning the following day.
He had called the Coastguard to let them know the route he’d be trawling on the “nice, sunny” day.
Fransen said he was hooked in a gimbal fishing harness with safety rails on the port and starboard side, which “enclosed” him, however he wasn’t wearing a lifejacket or Personal Locator Beacon when he was yanked off the boat while attempting to reel in a marlin.
“I think the fish lurched and I lifted and the safety rail came out of its position and instantly I just rolled into the water,” he told 1News.
Fransen said he tried to swim back toward the idling boat, but was unable to reach it in time.
He then began pulling himself in using the line the marlin was on when “the line slipped out of my glove”.
“So that’s the end of that and I’m sitting there treading water and the boat’s quietly chugging along,” he said.
Fransen said he spent a lot of time hallucinating, and reflecting on his life and loved ones as he didn’t think he would “make it another night”.
“I knew my chances weren’t very good – I’m usually pretty positive, but I knew my chances weren’t good.”
He described having saltwater enter his nose and mouth, which “wasn’t very nice”.
“I shivered through the night, [my] teeth rattled and I thought ‘there’s not much chance of game fishing boats being out in that weather’.
“I thought ‘oh well I’m probably not going to make this’ so I just kept trying to keep air in [the harness], honestly.”
It was around 2.30pm that afternoon when Fransen had the idea to use the plastic lens of his watch to call for help.
“I looked at it and got a bit of reflection. I thought ‘that’s all I got’, so I tried holding that up to signal this boat but I’d just sink straight away.”
When the wind dropped and the sun’s angle was just right, his rescuers saw the glistening flash – then another.
“James at the helm thought ‘there aren’t supposed to be waving arms out there’,” Fransen said.
Rescuers say the ‘stars aligned’
One of Fransen’s rescuers, James Mcdonnell, said Fransen was “incredibly pale and incredibly cold” when they hauled him onto their boat yesterday afternoon.
He said the group did what they could to keep him awake and talking.
“Everyone quickly stripped off their sweatshirts and really tried to rug him up nice and warm to try and get some colour back,” he said.
They also gave him some water as he was “obviously fairly dehydrated” after his ordeal.
“We were shocked for seeing someone that far off the coast but also when you looked at him he was so pale, so we’re thinking that the situation could be a little bit dire,” he said.
Mcdonnell said the group weren’t meant to be fishing at all that day, adding that it was a “late-minute decision” to drive there from Auckland at 3.30am.
“The stars aligned and we were just the boat at the right time,” he said.
“Anyone would have done it but it was just meant to be.
“It’s an incredible story and I don’t think too many people would believe us but hey, Will’s there to tell the tale.”
Fransen said all his rescuers asked for in return was a beer, saying they did everything “spot on”.
Despite some windburn and stiff joints, Fransen said he’s lucky to be here and accepted responsibility for the things he’d do differently.
“I would modify the safety rails. I should have had a lifejacket and Personal Locater Beacon on. Because I was enclosed, I didn’t think I’d need it,” he said.
“I could have tried to release the fish through a ladder and tethered myself to the boat. I could have had the boat out of gear.”
For the full story, watch 1News at 6pm.