AN AUSTRALIAN surf charter boat has stumbled across a boatload of stranded Sri Lankan refugees trying to get to Australia.
The Indies Trader III made the startling discovery on Wednesday while looking for waves near the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia.
About six Australians are on board, including staff, enjoying a surf trip.
Speaking from the boat yesterday afternoon, American skipper Eric Soderqvist said they came across the asylum seekers after their rickety boat broke down 10 days earlier.
Mr Soderqvist described the boat as being packed with about 50 Sri Lankans, including men, women, children and the elderly.
"There are people everywhere - you can't look anywhere inside or on the deck without seeing a person," he said.
"They were just desperate for more fuel, food and wanted to get to Christmas Island."
The stranded passengers held up signs, which read "Sri Lankan refugees", and passed a note to Australian chef
Tim Everingham when he ferried over some supplies from the Australian boat.
The note stated the asylum seekers had travelled from India but had run out of fuel and needed 2000 litres of diesel to get to Australia.
"All of us were affected by the war," the note stated.
"Please sir, we kindly ask send (us off) to Australia."
The note also included a written plea not to call the police.
Mr Soderqvist said they gave the Sri Lankans as much food as they could, along with water and cigarettes but no fuel.
"It's a double-edged sword," Mr Soderqvist said.
"Even if we could give them the fuel to get them to Christmas Island it would be like giving them a death sentence as the weather is horrible.
"It's almost saving them not sending them there."
The charter boat crew contacted Australian Customs and were directed to call the Indonesian authorities, who confirmed they would send help.
"I think they are praying Indonesian authorities won't come along and we will give them a hand and get them on their way to Christmas Island," the skipper said.
"You really root for the underdog in these things but looking at the weather their chances of making it are slim.
"It's better they don't attempt it."
The unusual encounter came about the same time a boat carrying about 150 asylum seekers went missing of the coast of Java.
Six people have been rescued.