Two KwaZulu-Natal fishermen appear lucky to be alive after falling overboard several kilometres off-shore north of Richards Bay. Picture: NSRI

Richards Bay - Two KwaZulu-Natal fishermen appear lucky to be alive after falling overboard several kilometres off-shore north of Richards Bay in Northern KwaZulu-Natal on Friday afternoon.

The National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) Richards Bay duty crew were activated at 3.42pm, NSRI Richards Bay duty coxswain Norman Rautenbach said on Saturday.

This followed an alert from the crew of the commercial fishing ski-boat Rockerfella reporting that they had happened upon the ski-boat Ditto, found to be under way with one motor running about eight nautical miles off-shore of Richards Bay, but with no one on board, he said.

The crew of the Rockerfella had managed to raft their boat alongside the Ditto, which had been heading out to sea. A crewman from Rockerfella was able to board the Ditto and cut the motor, bringing the unmanned boat to a halt. 

They raised the alarm alerting the NSRI, and an investigation confirmed that the Ditto launched from Richards Bay at 7am on Friday and was due back at 6pm. With no sign of the two crew members known to have been on board - Jaco Snyman, 26, and skipper Trevor O'Neill, 49, both local men.- a full-scale search and rescue operation was launched. 

Telkom Maritime Radio Services broadcast an all ships alert and Rockerfella had already started a search, Rautenbach said.

All vessels in the area at the time joined in the search and two NSRI Richards Bay sea rescue craft - Spirit of Richards Bay and Spirit of Round Table II - arrived on the scene to join in the search and rescue operation.

"We treated this as a man overboard [incident], although not knowing the fate of the two men and still with no explanation as to why their boat was found with a motor running and under way.

"Having no indication of where or when the skipper and his crewman had left the boat and with no indication of what may have happened, a search covering the area from the direction in which the boat was heading was initiated," he said.

At about 4:30pm, a report was received from members of the public saying two men has been spotted walking along the beach between Five Miles Beach and Seven Miles Beach. 

It was then confirmed that both the skipper and his crewman had come across members of Richards Bay Minerals (RBM) at Five Miles Beach. At about 5pm, O'Neill called the NSRI from the RBM offices reporting that he and Snyman were safe and had arranged a lift with RBM staff to get back to Richards Bay, Rautenbach said.

"They reported that they had both fallen overboard after their boat hit a wave. Jaco had fallen backwards and grabbed a hold of Trevor, but in the momentum of the stumble and fall had caused both men to go over the side of the boat.

"Initially the boat was going around in wide circles, but out of reach of the two men. The boat had continued on its way without them and they were left behind facing the task of trying to swim ashore, but without life-jackets. It is estimated that they were about 2.2 nautical miles off-shore (4km) (and 20km north of Richards Bay, off-shore of the Groenkop mast tower," he said.

It was estimated that they fell overboard at around 1pm and swam for about two hours, reaching shore at about 3pm, but being in a remote area they had walked along the beach until they came across the RBM staff who then helped them.

"During the swim Jaco had developed cramp and exhaustion and Trevor got Jaco to keep his lungs full with air, for floatation, and Trevor dragged Jaco towards the shore. Once ashore, in the vicinity of Hlabane, they rested and then started walking towards RBM knowing that eventually they would come across someone to assist them."

When Ditto was found by Rockerfella the boat was heading in a straight line and it was believed that with one motor not running from fuel starvation, the drag of that motor caused the boat to head in one direction instead going around in circles.

"They are both safe home and their boat was brought back to Richards Bay with the commercial ski-boat crewman at the helm and NSRI escorted the casualty boat back to port. Both Trevor and Jaco, who had been out fishing for the day when the incident occurred, were checked on during the night by NSRI as a precaution to monitor for secondary drowning and both men are reported to be fine and they require no further assistance," Rautenbach said.