The Toughest Decision

 Darrin Wells was upbeat as he readied his fibreglass boat for a day’s fishing off the coast of Perth. A fly-in, fly-out worker in the West Australian mines, the 47-year- old geo-technical engineer had one more day’s break before flying back to the Pilbara for a two-week stint.
During his precious time back home in Chittering in the hills north of Perth, he’d relish time with his wife Susan and their children Megan, 17, and Michael, 15. But whenever he could, he’d head out to sea to fish and dive.
Born in Zimbabwe and educated in South Africa, Darrin loved to fish. He loved the freedom of sailing out over the swell, but more than that, it was the thrill of the hunt that attracted him. He and his friend Richard Harrison, a fellow Zimbabwean, had met in Perth. The pair would fish for hours amid the schools of pelagic fish in the deep water. They’d keep one or two to eat and throw the rest back.
Conditions were sunny and calm as the pair headed out to sea. Their aim was to be back in time for Darrin to give his son a lift from school at 3pm. Susan was at home without transport as Megan had taken the other car to uni. As always, they called the local marine rescue group to tell them where they were going and when they expected to be back – an essential precaution in the shark-filled seas of Western Australia, where the weather can turn in a matter of minutes.
By 9am they had arrived 8km off the coast and started to fish. For a while they had no luck, but at 11 . 30 they caught a Spanish mackerel. Excited, they scanned the depth sounder for signs of the shoal. Sure enough, there were large shadows, but nothing was biting. They changed lures and threw down some bait – still no luck.
“I’ll go down and have a look,” said Darrin, an experienced diver with plans to be a dive master. He put on his dive gear, marked the spot where he was going down, and went over. “If I don’t come back, make sure they find the body,” he joked.
Twenty-five metres down, Darrin hit the bottom. All he could see was sand – and great clumps of weed. That explained the shadows. But Darrin was undeterred. He was on the hunt. He started moving east, towards where he thought the reef, and the fish, would be.
Just then he saw a yellowtail kingfish and chased it . Once he reached the reef he saw a turtle, and then another yellowtail . As he followed the creatures two tiny alarm bells sounded in the back of his mind: that the increasing movement in the water could indicate the arrival of a westerly, and t hat he was getting further and further away from the boat. “It’s going to be lumpy up there, I’d rather stay down here,” he thought.
On the surface, Richard was keeping an eye on the time. As agreed, he stayed  in the same area for ten minutes after Darrin dived in, just to make sure his friend’s equipment was working. Then he motored off to continue fishing, making sure he came back to the dive site in good time for Darrin to resurface.
Ten minutes before he knew Darrin would come up to the surface, he arrived at the place and waited.
Darrin stayed down as long as he could to relish the last moments before he went back to work. It was when he came up, having used all his air, that he realised his predicament.
The westerly had indeed arrived: there were 3m waves and 70km/ h winds. The sun was still shining in the bright, clear sky above; the sunlight was catching on the waves and making visibility near impossible. “Boy, I can’t see the boat,” Darrin thought.
Still, this was nothing new. He and Richard had a system: Darrin would hold one of his bright orange flippers high in the air on the end of his sea gun, and Richard would come to fetch him. This time, as he waited, he was conscious of a radical current, pulling
him further and further away from where he knew the boat should be.
Maybe Richard won’ t see me, he thought before telling himself to calm down and keep to the plan.
After ten minut es he caught a glimpse of the boat, but it was clear that there was no way Richard could see him. There was nothing else to do, he’d have to swim the 250m to the boat. Darrin was a strong swimmer, but even with flippers he made virtually no progress: swimming into the wind and the waves, he just kept getting mouthfuls of seawater.
Like most southern Africans of his age group, Darrin had spent a couple of years in the army and was trained in survival techniques. He was also a super fit sportsman: he competed in triathlons and ran marathons. He understood his own body – and knew its limits. He monitored his fatigue, careful not to push himself beyond the point of exhaustion.
So now he assessed his situation rationally. The recommended thing to do was to stay where he was and wait for recovery. But he could see the sun going down and knew that even if a search was launched, there was very little chance of anyone seeing him in the waves. The currents and waves were all heading towards land, which he could see 8km in the distance. There’s only one way of being 100 per cent certain I’ll get out of this, he thought. I’ll have to swim to shore.
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