In 1997, North Queensland filmmaker Matt Blyth lost his best mate at sea. Last year, while travelling down the east coast, Blyth stumbled across a newspaper story about a commercial fishing trawler that had sunk off Byron Bay 10 years earlier.
Blyth says the story “jolted me to the core” and inspired the making of a documentary – named after the trawler, Sea Rogue, – that tells the story of Angourie man Michael Williams and his epic swim to raise the alarm.
The documentary, which is a combination of interview and animation narrated by Williams, who recites poetry from his booklet Sea Rogue, a true survivor’s tale in spoken word, recently won the ‘Jury Prize’ at the Port Shorts Film Festival held in Port Douglas, North Queensland.
Blyth, who has entered the documentary on the “film festival circuit around the globe”, hopes it’s the first of more awards to come.
“From the moment we met Mick we hit it off,” Blyth says, “given we have both lost great mates at sea, there was a lot of common ground.”
At about 2am on Wednesday February 27, 2008, Williams was asleep in the forecastle of the trawler when its nets snagged on the sea bed, which combined with a strong ocean current to capsize and sink the trawler.
Lit by a “slight moon”, Williams and his crewmates, Charlie Picton and John ‘JJ’ Jarratt, clung to a red, upturned sorting tub until the morning light prompted Williams to make a fortuitous decision: swim for the shore, 16 kilometres distant.
“I look into their eyes; their lives are fading thin,” Williams says in the documentary. “I’ve been treading water all night. Now I must swim.”
Williams made it to shore at New Brighton at about 4pm, bleeding and clothed in a just a singlet.
“Charlie was stuck and I pushed him through the hole in the cabin window,” Williams told the Independent at the time of his ordeal.
“I got stuck and lost my pants and I was cut to pieces on the broken glass.
“I got through at that moment when I thought I was going to drown and swam a couple of metres to get to the surface – it was probably the longest couple of seconds you could ever have.”
Late on Wednesday afternoon, after Williams had triggered the search, a rescue helicopter flew over the two men clinging to the sorting tub, but they were not spotted.
John Jarratt was found and rescued at about 8am on Thursday February 27 – he was located about 8km offshore, north of Lennox Head.
The search for Charlie Picton continued throughout Thursday, but he was never found.
Williams was awarded a Royal Humane Society of NSW Bronze Medal in December 2010 and was one of 19 Australians awarded the Bravery Medal in 2018 “for acts of bravery in hazardous circumstances”.
Actor, producer and film festival judge Stephan Curry (The King, The Castle, Wog Boy) says: “It’s a unique film, beautiful, powerful and captivating.
“You can’t lose your best mate and not get cut to the quick, and you can actually feel that in Sea Rogue. It’s a story of hope, of never giving up, a beautifully executed and unique documentary short.”
The film was funded by the SeSAFE project, “an initiative to raise awareness and improve safety performance in the fishing and aquaculture industry, Australia-wide”, which is in turn funded by Australian Government agencies, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.
Principal investigator to project SeSAFE, Steve Eayrs, says, “first and foremost the documentary raises awareness of the dangers fishers face every day on the water”.
The trailer can be viewed at vimeo.com/369490589.