Cape Town - Clinging to his capsized fishing boat with his son and three crewmen as waves crashed over them, Strand skipper Philip Schoeman saw another crew member break away and try to get to shore.
Three hours later a second crewman could no longer hold on. He died in Schoeman and his friends’ arms.
While holding up the last of 10 flares after nine hours of struggling in icy water off Kleinmond, Schoeman gave up hope that he and the others would make it.
But moments later, just before 7pm on Monday, National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) members spotted the four survivors.
The group was rescued about two hours after the crewman died in their arms and several hours after the other was lost at sea.
“It was a miracle that the NSRI saw us with the last flare. That feeling, I can’t describe,” Schoeman, who 13 years ago survived a similar capsizing, said from his Strand home on Tuesday.
Schoeman, 53, a commercial fisherman, his son Philip, 27, and two crewmen, Alwyn du Plooy, of Strand, and Joe Williams, of Brackenfell, survived the ordeal.
Crew members Piet van As and Anthony de Wit were lost at sea.
De Wit’s body was recovered on Tuesday, while divers searched for Van As.
Schoeman launched his boat, Aralda III, with five permanent crew members aboard, at 7am on Monday.
About three hours later they had a problem pulling up the anchor and Schoeman believes this led to the boat capsizing.
All six crew clung to the upside-down boat.
They managed to get life jackets from under the boat and they had a “capsize kit”, which contained 10 flares.
“You have to stay positive the whole time. You start to accept the situation and talk about it. Then things start to happen. You decide when to let the flares go.
“Conditions were very extreme. The water was about 12 and a half degrees Celsius. The wind picked up. Water came over our faces all the time,” Schoeman said.
About four hours after capsizing, Van As complained that there was “too much pain in his legs”.
Schoeman said the boat was drifting very slowly and Van As realised he could be stuck at sea throughout the night.
“While he still had a bit of strength in him he decided to drift to shore... We saw him 200 metres away from us. He was going quite well. That’s the last time we saw him.”
Schoeman fought back negative thoughts as he clung to the upturned boat.
“When you start to get negative you don’t talk. But you can’t give false hope. You have to be realistic,” he said.
At one point he thought he saw a boat and his spirits soared, but it was sea spray from a breaching whale.
The group later spotted a fishing boat coming towards them and Schoeman set off a rocket flare.
But the boat left.
“That was (De Wit’s) last hope.”
Yet another wave later broke De Wit’s grasp from the boat and he swallowed water.
Schoeman said De Wit’s last words were: “Ek kan nou dood gaan” (I can die now).
“He died in our arms,” Schoeman said.
They had nothing to use to tie De Wit’s body to the boat so they had to let it go.
About 6.30pm Schoeman saw a helicopter circling, but it was too high for them to be spotted.
“Just before 7pm I saw the NSRI boat. But they turned away. I thought: ‘Oh well. There’s our last hope.’ I only had one small hand flare left.
“The boat turned around again. I started the flare.”
NSRI members spotted the flare three nautical miles off the Kleinmond shore and rescued the group.
Schoeman said that 13 years ago he and Van As had survived a similar situation, but in calmer conditions – they spent 15 hours at sea after their boat capsized near Struisbaai.
“You must always know that life is more important than you think. That’s what we learned the first time. (On Monday) we were in the same situation,” he said.
Van As’s partner, Alida, was too emotional to speak about the incident on Tuesday.
De Wit’s wife, Baba, said her husband had fished for 35 years. “That was his life. That’s where he wants to be, the sea,” she said.
Baba said her husband had kissed her goodbye at 5.15am on Monday and at 7pm she heard the boat had capsized.
“We were married for 31 years. He was my first and is now my last,” she said.