The West

Amazing story of survival at sea
Jim Nicholson. Picture: Ian Munro/The West Australian

On Sunday, June 2, 2013, I found myself swimming towards Lancelin Island.

I had been lost at sea for three hours and the only thing that kept me going was that I had to see my family again.

I was with three mates - Paul Clifton, his brother Neil, and Paul's brother-in-law Colin Gude - on a boys' fishing trip.

It was about 9am and we had been drift fishing about 3km west of Lancelin Island for an hour when we decided to head into calmer waters because the strong wind and waves were making fishing difficult.

Little did we know the boat had been silently filling with water.

When we started the engine and moved, the water under the floor rushed to the back of the boat, forcing the bow up and the motor into the water.

Suddenly water started coming up from the floor and in less than two minutes we had our life jackets on, EPIRB in hand and Paul tried to make a mayday call.

We jumped into the water, surfacing to find the boat at 90 degrees just under the water line.

I don't think any of us spoke a word; we were all in shock.

We hung on to the bow rail trying to take in what had happened when all of a sudden the hatch blew out and the boat dis- appeared in 20m of water.

When you are faced with the situation we were, I have learnt there is no right or wrong.

Do you stay together or separate, do you swim or conserve your energy?

From left: Neil Clifton, Paul Clifton and Colin Gude were on the boat when it sank off Lancelin. Paul died before the men were rescued.

The panic and fear set in for me and I decided I needed to swim for the island.

I was wearing one of those yellow lifejackets and if you have ever tried to put one on in 10 seconds when a boat is sinking, you soon discover it doesn't always go to plan.

It had twisted on itself and I couldn't get the straps done up in time. I tried to do it up and even considered taking it off in the water to untwist it and put it back on. I am unsure what stopped me but if I had taken it off in the water, I am certain I wouldn't have got it back on.

I began to swim breaststroke facing the island, the others slowly following, but the waves were coming over my face and I was struggling to breathe.

The only option was to turn on my back, kick with my feet and push the water in a backstroke motion.

I thought I was making progress when I suddenly bumped into something. I turned around and it was Paul.

The waves and current had pushed me around and I was heading back out to sea.

It was then we saw a fishing boat about 500m north of us heading out from Lancelin.

Thoughts of his wife Karen and children Ebony (right), Georgia (left) and Banjo, kept Mr Nicholson going. Picture: Ian Munro

We yelled, waved and did everything possible to get their attention but they did not see us.

There were three horrific moments in the water I relive on a daily basis - the boat sinking, seeing that chance of rescue disappear and the body cramps.

After bumping into Paul I decided to start swimming again on my back and this time I noticed the moon just above the horizon. I worked out if I positioned the moon between my feet it would keep me on course for the island. I soon lost sight of the others.

The waves kept pounding over my head but it was when my body first cramped that I realised I was in a situation I potentially had no control over. The terror and reality of dying was all too real. Seeing my wife Karen and our children - Ebony, 14, Georgia, 12, and Banjo, 8 - again kept me going.

That was all I thought about. And the fear I think, I just didn't want to drown.

To this day I have no idea why I stopped swimming and turned around when I did, but there in front of me was a cray boat.

The deckhand spotted me yelling and waving.

Exhausted, I was dragged into the boat.

The alarm was raised and about 30 minutes later, sea rescue volunteers found the other three floating further north.

I don't know if anyone heard Paul's hurried mayday call but I don't think anyone was looking for us before I was found.

I cannot thank enough the crew of the cray boat, the sea and air rescue teams and those on other boats who assisted in the search.

Tragically, Paul passed away in his brother's arms a short time before the rescue boat found them. We think he swallowed too much salt water and died from water on his lungs.

Neil, Colin and I were rushed to Lancelin hospital, put in a warm shower and treated for hypothermia.

I know now that I was in a state of shock. After being interviewed by police I thought "that is that", now I can get my clothes, pick up my car and drive home to see the family.

But the decision had been made to transfer us to Joondalup hospital to monitor us for water in the lungs.

On the way, the paramedic caring for me mentioned the accident was being reported on the radio and it would be a good idea to call my wife before she heard it on the news.

I had not called her earlier because she was visiting family friends in the country and I didn't want to ruin her day or worry her.

That phone call triggered emotions I had never experienced in my life and I hope I never experience again.

Until then my fight and flight - or shock - had protected me from registering any feelings.

Hearing my wife's voice started a world of emotional pain which I am still coming to terms with 12 months later.

Karen had just put the kids in the car and started a two-hour trip to Perth when I rang; I guess my timing couldn't have been worse.

I remember asking her to pull over and take me off the speaker phone. I didn't want the kids to hear what I was about to say.

In hindsight I should have known she wouldn't have been listening to the news on the radio, but now she had a long and worrying drive back to Perth.

Neil and Colin were released from hospital that evening but because of some physical injuries, I remained in hospital for the week.

One by one my family, friends and work colleagues came to visit.

I am for ever grateful for their support during this time, however I don't think I have cried so much in a week.

I cried whenever someone came to see me, I cried with the nurses looking after me, I cried on my own and I even cried when I slept.

I was going through two types of emotions - the sheer terror of being in the water and not making it home to the family and the loss of Paul, my best friend and workmate.

The hospital staff could not have been more considerate.

Jim Nicholson and wife Karen speak to Channel 7 and The West about his ordeal. Picture: Ben Crabtree.

They protected me from the media, arranged for a social worker and pastoral care person to visit me daily, left me alone when I needed to be alone and comforted me when I needed comforting.

The same goes for the nurses at Lancelin Hospital and the St John Ambulance officers who transported me back to Perth. Thank you.

I spent the first month after the accident at home. I couldn't face work nor would have I been capable of functioning.

Some people need distractions to occupy their minds but I needed to be close to my family.

That month was exhausting for me but more so for my family.

Every waking minute of the day I would think about the accident and I'd replay the events in my mind. It totally consumed me.

I would punish myself thinking about the "what ifs" - what if we took my boat, what if we didn't lose the emergency beacon when the boat sank, what if the cray boat didn't see me, what if Paul had not managed to give us the life vests.

I remember telling a friend who is a fireman that I was tired of thinking about the "what ifs" because I can't change what happened. He told me I actually needed to think of as many possible scenarios as I could and once I thought of every "what if" I would be better off. He was right.

Now when I think about the accident, I just accept what actually happened. Soon after the accident, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

I would find myself standing in the wardrobe wondering what to wear, go to chop wood for the fire and be found 20 minutes later, axe in hand and no wood chopped.

I couldn't watch television shows about sadness or death, especially involving children.

I can't watch fishing shows any more. Yet every time there is a news report on another boating accident I sit glued to the TV.

Then for the remainder of the day and night I relive the accident.

Flashbacks, I thought, were sudden memories of events we experienced. I soon discovered they are far more than that.

One minute I would be sitting on the couch or lying in bed and the next I would be back in the water swimming for my life.

I wouldn't be thinking about what happened, I would be reliving every part of it.

When this happened my "fight and flight" would go into overdrive and I could not sleep for days.

In the water I thought a lot about Karen and the kids' birthdays and how they would cope if their Dad wasn't there.

I remember picturing the family in the kitchen celebrating Ebony's and Georgia's birthdays - which were next - as if I was watching from above.

This made every birthday after the accident extremely difficult for me.

Anxiety is another symptom I had to learn to deal with after the accident.

I would walk into my office and then get straight back up and drive home for no apparent reason.

I would go to the supermarket, fill my trolley with food but not be able to go through the checkout.

Socialising in groups, or even going out for dinner with close friends, is something I still struggle with.

The experience led me to sell our boat. I loved fishing, water skiing and cruising the river with the family and friends.

I am not sure when I will return to the water, but I know someday I will.

These are all minor issues compared with the effect the accident had on my relationship with my wife and kids.

After a while I could talk about the accident without getting emotional but as soon as I mentioned the fear of the water, the cramps and the real possibility of not making it back to my family, I broke down.

My beautiful wife Karen is mentally the strongest and most positive person I know and the accident had a profound effect on her for the first six months.

She would watch me night and day, comfort me when I had nightmares, listen to me when I tried to explain what I experienced in the water and was there every minute as I grieved for Paul.

This put a massive burden on her as she still had three children to care for, a house to maintain and was applying to join the paramedics, a long-term goal.

She was accepted at the beginning of the year and I am so proud, especially considering the emotional pressures she was under.

I am tired of feeling emotionally drained, I am tired of crying for no apparent reason, I am tired of feeling depressed, I am tired of being irrational and I am tired of relating everything back to the accident.

I can only imagine how tired she must be.

We often focus our support on the people who are involved in the trauma and less on those closest to them.

My gorgeous three children also suffered. I am still not sure how it has truly affected them.

At first I did not explain the details of the accident to them, partly to protect them and partly because I didn't think they would understand. That was a mistake.

As a parent I should have known better. Kids hear more than we think and they conjured up images in their minds from listening to the adults around them.

My wife and I decided we had to take the family back to the scene of the accident.

We had stayed in Lancelin with family friends in 2012, swimming at the back beach, playing in the sand dunes and walking along the Lancelin pier.

How different the return visit was. The kids had seen the photo in the newspaper of the ambulances parked on the pier during the rescue, with Lancelin Island in the background.

We walked out on to the pier and I showed them how far out to sea we were when the boat sank, the condition of the water and just how cold it was.

I don't think I was prepared for the look of horror in their faces, especially the girls, who were old enough to take in how close they were to losing their father.

We sat on the pier for an hour talking about the events of the day, among tears and lots of hugs.

Even as a seven-year-old, my son was affected by the accident but in a different way to the girls.

I coach his Auskick team and have always kicked the footy with him in the street.

The Saturday after I was released from hospital, Banjo was ready to go to footy with his dad.

He came bounding into the bedroom, footy in hand.

He wasn't expecting to find his dad sitting on the end of the bed crying. This I know had a profound effect on my little man and for the next couple of months our relationship was different.

He was apprehensive about asking me to kick the footy with him and would instead kick the footy with his mum.

I was so self-centred I was unable to recognise how this was affecting him.

Only in the past couple of months has he started to once again feel secure around me. Until then I think he was scared of walking in on his dad crying, something no seven-year-old boy should experience.

I have so much admiration for Karen and the kids for supporting me through that time.

As a family we have also been supported by relatives and some very dear and close friends, who have been there for all of us though the good and bad times.

Without them our lives would be very different.

Pain is personal and we each deal with grief, trauma and suffering in our own way. I was alone in the water for three hours facing the reality of dying. No one should die alone.

The past 12 months have been what I hope will be the hardest 12 months of my life. I want to help others who have experienced similar situations to ours and educate anyone going out on to the water that even if you have all the safety equipment and prepare, like we did, it can happen to you. It never goes to plan.

I plan to set up a Facebook page called Lost at Sea and Survived, where people can share experiences and learn about safe boating. Anyone who would like to get in touch now can email me on

The West Australian

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