A man holds up a fish.

‘Just a waiting game’: Fisher recounts a nighttime ordeal alone at sea

When Kaleb Cockburn set off on a solo fishing trip off the coast of Western Australia on Monday morning, he didn’t expect to spend the night at sea.

The 25-year-old had no luck catching sailfish on Exmouth Reef, so he decided to sail further north near an island he regularly fished.

It was almost 3 p.m., the time Mr Cockburn was expected to be back at the boat launch, so he decided to head back to shore.

But the weather had other plans.

“The wind just picked up,” he said.

“It was gusts of 30 to 40 knots and there were waves crashing over the bow of the boat.

“I was doing 3 knots forward, 5 knots back.”

An aerial view of a vivid blue rugged coastline
An extensive marine search began when Mr Cockburn failed to return from his fishing trip.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

For Mr Cockburn, it was a ‘quick and rational’ decision to head about 10 miles north-north-east of the island for safe mooring.

He knew the risks of the high seas and that he had to protect himself.

‘I didn’t want to lose my boat so I turned and went with the next sea to this island,’ Mr Cockburn said.

“[I] just couldn’t get a signal through the phone, through the VHS or whatever.

“It was just a waiting game.”

Marine research begins

When Mr Cockburn failed to return home, an extensive marine search began.

Members of the Exmouth community gathered in private vessels alongside Local Volunteer Marine Rescue and an Australian Maritime Safety Authority Challenger rescue plane dispatched from Perth.

Mr Cockburn spent the night on the island, where he endured cold and windy conditions.

Aerial search
A Marine Safety Authority aircraft carried out an aerial search east of the Exmouth Peninsula.(Provided: flightradar24.com)

Around 6 a.m. Tuesday, he decided to make the return trip to shore.

“[I] I slowly started to walk back towards the boat launch and that’s when I started to have a bit of broken communication via the radio,” Mr Cockburn said.

“I was just trying to listen to see what was going on.”

Unsure whether a search was underway for him, Mr Cockburn tried to inform rescuers by radio.

“I was trying to reach the radio even though I couldn’t hear what was going on,” he said.

“[I was] simply saying, “It’s Kaleb, I’m going this way, [at] this time and I’m pretty much here right now.”

“‘If anyone is looking, I’m fine. I’ve got food, I’ve got water, I’ve got fuel. I’m safe.'”

As Mr Cockburn approached the coast the radio communication became clearer and he heard someone say ‘little little white boat’.

“I was like, ‘Oh wow, maybe there [are] people were looking for me,” he said.

Grouper near Exmouth
The waters off Exmouth are a popular fishing spot.

Mr Cockburn said communication became stronger and he heard conversations between the lifeboats and other vessels.

“They were setting up a search grid and they were starting to head north,” he said.

“I heard some of the lifeboats were coming back to do a crew change, obviously because they’d been out all night…trying to get me, the little devil.”

Fisher grateful for research efforts

Mr Cockburn became emotional when he told the ABC of his gratitude to everyone who took part in his research.

“I thank each and every one of them. There were guys there until two or three in the morning,” he said.

“A lot of guys from the charter went out and put all their boats in the water and just grabbed some buddies and everybody jumped on them. A few of the boys from the foot club all jumped over there.

“It was amazing and I don’t know what the word is, but I really appreciate everyone’s efforts, they just gave up on the job and gave up whatever they would do to get out of research.”

Mr Cockburn said the overnight stay on the island was ‘definitely not worth it’ as he didn’t bring any fish home.

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