Surviving the Blythe Star

Mick Doleman has spoken about the horror of being castaway in a life raft in the Tasman Sea with nine men, three of whom he watched perish in unimaginable circumstances.

In a television first, Sunday Night recreated the incredible story of the Blythe Star's fateful sinking through the gripping recollection of the last surviving crew member.

Mick – until recently a senior figure in the Maritime Union of Australia – has been reluctant to recount the detail of his ordeal, and heroism, until now. Even his family has been unaware of the challenges and life-and-death incidents that swamped their days at sea and lost in remote wilderness.

"Many of the families of the men don’t know this story. If I don’t tell it it will die with me," Mick told Rahni Sadler.

"My conscience suggested I've got some unfinished business to do and that's why I've decided to tell this story."

The Blythe Star set sail from Hobart bound for King Island via Tasmania's treacherous West Coast in fine weather.

Mick Doleman was the ship's deck boy and the youngest of the 10-man crew at age 18. He said farewell to then-girlfriend Joanie and set sail with his new crew.

"I loved going to sea, loved the men I sailed with, the camaraderie that existed amongst it, the mateship."

The crew included Ken Jones, the chief officer, captain George Cruickshank, Mick Power, chef Alf Simpson, Malcolm McCarrol, second engineer John Sloan, Cliffy Langford, John Eagles and Stan Leary.

Just after 8am Mick and his crewmates were thrown from their bunks in the lower deck as the ship listed and water poured inside at a staggering rate.

"I had fell out of my bunk, I got up on my feet. Malcolm McCarroll was trying to dog down a porthole that had been left open," Mick said in his incredibly detailed retelling of the tragedy.

"There was a lot of water coming in through it. We didn’t say a word to each other, just looked at each other. There was horror in his eyes and it must have been in my eyes too."

He and Malcolm came across the rest of the crew, dressed mostly in just underwear, and they headed for the port side of the ship, still above water.

"It is probably the most scariest thing to experience, is standing on what is left of your world, surrounded by ocean"

Because the boat had capsized the crew couldn’t free the two lifeboats so their lives depended on the single emergency raft.

From it they watched the Blythe Star make her final descent.

"We were all just gob-smacked; it was gone, nothing at the surface. Didn’t see any debris, nothing."

"It was like the ocean swallowed it."

The crew celebrated in their raft, all 10 having escaped the sinking ship alive.

"We just thought this is the worst thing that can happen and we've beat it.

"We couldn't have been more wrong"

Little did they know, help was not on its way.

Captain George Cruickshank had not called for help, no one knew their ship had gone down.

It was Joanie's 17th birthday and she had no idea the love of her life was adrift in a life raft in freezing conditions wearing nothing but shorts.

"I was sitting in the life boat and they are all there at her birthday party having cake fights, unaware of what had occurred on the Blythe Star," Mick said.

When the captain informed the men that he hadn’t sent an SOS the mood in the raft took a sombre turn.

Second engineer John Sloan had tried to go back for life-saving medication but had boarded the raft without it and soon his health turned.

Meanwhile on land the ship was reported as missing but still no one knew it had sunk, no one was looking for a life raft drifting up and down the southwest coast of Tasmania.

TVT-6 journalist Trevor Sutton covered the event and said the search for the Blythe Star was 'ghastly, inept'.

"No urgency all, none, it was just a ship had gone missing and the government I think felt it would turn up soon, it had probably broken down."

After three days John died in the raft and although the crew wanted to bring his body home it was becoming apparent that survival was their ultimate priority.

"We were all so confident that we would be found, all 10 alive, and that sort of started to show our own vulnerability."

They wanted to bring him home, but as the realisation set in that rescue might not be on the way, the crew made the decision to bury John at sea.

"After the third day, we had seen nothing or heard nothing. We started getting a bit worried [about the search]."

"So we slipped him over the side and we had a terrible couple of days after that," an emotional Mick recalled.

"I was still in a pair of jocks and freezing so I took his socks and I was pretty sure that, although I didn’t know John that well, he would have been more than happy for me to take those socks."

When the raft drifted close enough to land to see Tasman Island landing and Malcolm, in desperation, said he could tie the raft to himself and tow it but the sheer distance and threat of sharks prevented him.

The course of the Blythe Star life raft

"I was at the opening of the raft with the flap open and I don’t know what brand of a shark this was but a shark came swimming past, it was a pretty big shark with its dorsal out, that was a worry," Mick said.

Their next close encounter with land was very different; waves began to wash the raft towards unforgiving vertical cliffs.

"These massive rocks that come out of the ocean and straight up into the air and there was about three or four of them in line."

"I don’t know where the energy had come from but we found it and miraculously we found ourselves, we shaved that corner"

It was around this time that family of the crew were told the search had been cancelled. With no sign or word from the Blythe Star, it was believed the crew had gone down with the ship.

"It was the biggest story I had ever been involved with. But, it got bigger and bigger as the days progressed because no one could find the ship," reporter Trevor Sutton said.

"All sorts of theories [came out]. Did the ship catch fire? Did the ship hit some sort of rock and sink?"

Over eight days, they drifted 400km up and down the Tasmanian coast and the crucial rations the crew had found in the life raft were their most precious possessions.

But as delirium set in, they lost control.

"For whatever reason, we thought we had visitors on-board the raft, so we knocked off whatever cans of water we had left, thinking they were alcohol or beer or whatever the case may be," Mick recalled.

"We were all were having the same experience. And I remember waking up, or coming to, might be the point… I said 'what have we done?'"

The crew thought they had struck gold as they awoke to find a rocky beach, known as Deep Glen Bay an incredibly remote part of Tasmania's South East coast.

The bay was surrounded by sheer cliffs and almost impenetrable forest and the crew quickly discovered they had neither the strength nor the equipment to go inland.

Deep Glen Bay is surrounded by cliffs and almost impenetrable bush

There was a freshwater stream there, we lucked out big-time that was fantastic …. we had plenty of water," Mick said.

"Very quickly we realized that getting out of here is going to be much more difficult than we imagined."

Tragically, as Mick explored the surrounds to find a way out, two of his crewmates were in the deadly throes of hypothermia.

John Eagles and Ken Jones had removed their clothes and died on the rocky beach at Deep Glen Bay.

"John was dead, lying at the edge of the water, and the waves were knocking him around at the water's edge. And I pulled his body up on to dry land," Mick said of the man he looked up to during their plight.

"Ken was ...a born leader. He was like a father-figure, quite frankly."

The rubber raft was cut up and used for shoes and clothing as Mick Doleman, Malcolm McCarroll and Alf Simpson set off for rescue, leaving the remaining four crew members in the bay, suffering extreme fatigue.

They made painstakingly slow progress through the "jungle" they encountered for one and a half days before coming across a logging track.

Truck driver Rod Smith came across the two men and had nothing but a packet of Minties to offer them, but his presence meant rescue.

He was crying as he told Rahni Sadler of the men's return to civilization and helping them make their phone calls home.

Alf's young daughter answered the phone and couldn't believe it was her dad on the other end, following a memorial service for him that day.

"He said, "I'm your father, I'm alive… "And I said, "No, my father's dead," Robyn Butcher told Sunday Night.

"He called me 'pet' and that was his nickname for me. So I knew it was him."

Mick and his chidren revisit the place the crew washed ashore

In the incredible retelling of this story, Mick Doleman revisited the rocky landing of Deep Glen Bay and recalled the very spot he had left his mates, alive and dead, unsure if any would meet again.

The four on the beach were rescued and Mick was reunited with his girlfriend amid an incredible media storm.

Mick and Joanie have been married 40 years now and have two children, Mick and Stacey, who encouraged him to share his story.

Together they travelled to Deep Glen Bay, where Mick Doleman could still spot from memory where he had seen two of his friends dead.

"Well, this is the second time I've been here."

"And the last time I'll be here."

The one positive outcome of the Blythe Star was the changes to maritime safety that followed to protect people at sea.

"Seafarers around this country now are much safer than they were in 1973 as a result of the disaster of the Blythe Star. Those three men who lost their lives, that's their legacy."