A missing boat belonging to a man who fell overboard and spent 24 hours floating in the sea off the Coromandel Peninsula has today been found off East Cape nearly 200 kilometres away.
Cambridge 61-year-old Will Fransen said he tried and failed multiple times to catch the attention of passing boats after he fell overboard near the Alderman Islands on 2 January, and was “pessimistic” from the start at his chances of survival.
Fransen had set off on a solo fishing trip on his 12m boat, with plans to return the next day. “The next thing I was in the water with the boat idling,” he told the Herald.
He tried to swim back to the boat but within a few strokes realised it was moving away from him too quickly.
His boat, the Betty G, turned up off East Cape today.
NZ Police confirmed a member of the public reported having found the boat ‘Betty G’ to them just after 1.30pm today.
“A boat belonging to the man rescued off the Alderman Islands on 3 January, washed ashore today at Waihau bay, Ōpōtiki,” a police spokesperson said.
“The owner has been notified and arrangements are underway to remove the boat from the shore.”
‘I just gave up’: Survivor speaks of ordeal
Fransen had hooked and tagged a marlin and was about to release it back into the ocean when everything went horribly wrong.
He cannot recall if he had lifted the rail on his boat or if it had come out on its own, but with the movement of the ocean and the fish, he lost his balance and fell out of the open safety rail.
“The next thing I was in the water with the boat idling,” he said.
“I grabbed the line with the marlin attached and started pulling the line out. I tried pulling my way towards the boat only to have the line slip out of my hand, which is pretty gutting, because next thing my boat’s idling over the horizon and I’m treading water.”
He was about 30 nautical miles, or 55km, east of the North Island and would end up drifting a long way south, to Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty.
Fransen had managed to keep a hold of his hat in the fall and tried to wave it and yell at passing boats, with no success.
He was not wearing a lifejacket but had on a harness that had some level of buoyancy to it.
He then tried to swim towards the nearby Alderman Islands, but soon realised the current was taking him in the opposite direction.
“I gave up and just treaded water and watched the beautiful sunset overhead.”
Shark begins circling
At some point in the ordeal, Fransen saw a fin appear in the water nearby and spotted a shark.
“Fortunately it decided it wasn’t interested. It would have been a good couple of metres so it could have easily dealt to me.”
The shark stayed in Fransen’s mind for some time. Every time he touched a bit of seaweed he was startled.
As the night wore on he reflected on family, friends and life, and regularly hoisted his harness into the air to drain water from it, hoping it would be buoyant enough to keep him afloat after his death.
He wanted it to be easy to find his body so his children would be able to cash in his life insurance policy, he said.
“I would have given any money for a lifejacket. I thought I was safe in the boat because the rails were up.”
Fransen trod water through the night, not sleeping, drifting many kilometres south until he ended up close to Mayor Island/Tuhua.
The weather conditions in the morning were rougher than the previous day, and he knew there were unlikely to be many boats out.
Fransen fought to keep his head above water as waves crashed over him. He ended up swallowing seawater and was shivering in the cooler temperatures.
“When I went in the water I knew the chances of somebody even knowing I was in the water were pretty slim. I was pretty pessimistic from the outset,” he said. “I just kept staying alive.”
Reflection of wristwatch used to signal for help
He eventually saw another boat and thought he would try to use his watch to catch the sun’s reflection and shine it at the boat.
“As I was trying to get my arm up I would just go underwater. So that boat duly motored away. Then something changed. The wind stopped, the sea got a bit calmer.”
Fransen had been hallucinating throughout the day, often seeing boats where there were none.
“I imagined plenty of them.”
But then he saw three young men game fishing nearby, and this time someone saw the light he was reflecting off his watch.
“Oh, the relief. Oh, just, yeah, I thought, ‘Well, it’s over’.
“I wasn’t meant to go yet.
“James, who was driving … in his words, he said, ‘I saw this waving arm and thought, well, there’s not supposed to be any waving arms out here’.”
James McDonnell, Max White and Tyler Taffs motored over to Fransen and pulled him from the water, wrapping him in everything they could find to bring his temperature up. Fransen sculled warm bottles of water and cranberry juice.
“They immediately headed for home at high speed.”
Fransen’s face was burned from the sun’s reflection off the water, and his legs, arms and joints were sore from treading water, but he was able to walk to the waiting ambulance when they arrived at Whangamatā.
* This story was first published in the Herald