LISTEN: Father thought he was going to die on tinnie
CLINGING to his capsized tinnie in rough seas for nine hours, Ben Mackay thought about tying himself to the boat so his family could find his body if he drowned.
Instead, battered, bruised and finally washed off the upturned hull he swam for three hours, in just his underwear, until he reached the coast near Clairview, 117km south of Mackay.
But the ordeal on Saturday night didn't end when Ben finally crawled up the beach.
He had to walk through about four properties with no one in sight, face a barking dog before finally finding help and given water and two chocolates by a man at Flaggy Rock.
Whether it was the fact that Sunday was his eldest daughter's 20th birthday, his determination or his country upbringing, Ben refused to give up.
The 45-year-old underground coal miner was in tears yesterday recounting the story in front of two of his four daughters and parents Mo and Nettie.
Sunburnt, battered from up to 2m waves crashing against him caused by wind gusts of up to 17 knots, he knew he could have died.
He tried to stay on the upturned tinnie and then, when the boat would not move any more, he swam about 1.5km trying not to think about the crocodiles, sharks and stingers.
The horror began on Saturday night after two days of "poking around" Aquila Island catching fish and starting fires.
As the sun set, Ben texted his wife Larnie at his camp at West Point on the island and then, in his underwear, sat down for dinner.
He looked to where his 4.2m tinnie was supposed to be but couldn't see its lights. Still in just his underwear, he found it where it had been moored, but the current and waves were throwing it about and it was taking on water.
He jumped in to water up to his shins, but as he turned on the motor a wave crashed into the side of the boat.
He was thrown out into the ocean, hitting his head on the side of the boat.
Disoriented, and with the boat capsized, Ben was unable to see the island.
"It was choppy and sh---y and it was windy... I was getting moved around so much I wasn't really sure where I was going to end up," he said.
"It came across my mind a lot - this is it - I didn't know if I was going to get out of this."
For the first hour he clung to the boat, getting smashed off one side, climbing back up and getting smashed off again.
'Finally... I had something'
Ben grew up on a wild boar farm in the Northern Territory before moving to the Pilbara where he would go fishing with his father.
From the age of eight, when he felt seasick his father would drop him off on a deserted island where he would poke around until his father returned.
It would be an understatement to say he was comfortable in nature.
On Saturday night, after more than an hour of being knocked off the upturned tinnie, Ben knew he needed to change the odds in his favour.
With a break in the cloud cover came a glimpse of the stars and the Southern Cross. That gave him his bearings.
He knew he was drifting north-north-west, and was happy it was slightly west.
"I had something then," he said.
"The ocean was s---... it knocked me around like crap, it went on for hours and hours and hours but I had something," he said.
The next time the clouds parted, he was still heading north but also to the east.
"I don't want to be heading away from the mainland... the bow of the boat was heading sort of north-northeast," he said.
He knew nobody would find him out at sea on an upturned 4.2m tinnie.
"You are thinking it is it. You like to think you're tough but when you are in that situation you're completely helpless... you have nothing," he said.
Ben got back in the water; he thrashed, kicked, pulled and thrashed again until the bow of the boat was pointing west.
It worked and for the next few hours, through rough seas, he slowly drifted toward the mainland.
"You keep going because of your family... you keep going because this is not how it is going to end," he said.
For hours he kicked and pushed the tinnie west, continually pounded by waves, his eyes sore, cold and thirsty.
"Two hours before daylight - brarp - it just stops"
But it wouldn't budge.
As daylight approached, Ben didn't want to swim under the boat for fear of banging his head and drowning.
For two hours he again clung to the upturned tinnie, now not drifting anywhere.
"Then the sun came up and it was behind me... which meant I was heading in the right direction," he said.
Knowing it was at the bottom of the tide, he said he had to free the boat from whatever was holding it back to ride the current as the tide came back in.
Diving under the boat, he saw fishing line running to the ground and anchor ropes. Using the knife he had in the tinnie, he slashed everything he could but still it wouldn't budge.
"The sun has come up, I have got a pair of jocks on, fair skin, I will cook to death on this boat if I don't die of dehydration.
"I knew I could swim but I was wrecked and needed something to keep me afloat."
He remembered the fuel tank floating on the inside of the tinnie, swam under and grabbed it.
"I know this is not the right thing for the environment but I had to live. I undid the cap and poured the whole tank on top of the boat and all over my legs," he said.
"I needed it to be really really buoyant."
Using some anchor rope he tied one end to the fuel tank and the other to his leg.
He was ready to swim for shore, which he estimated was about 1.5km away.
"They weren't there and I was that far out they wouldn't have heard me anyway"
Ben grabbed his empty fuel tank, threw it out into the ocean, stood on the tinnie and dived into the water, heading for the shore in the distance.
"A wave just smashed me really hard. I came up, up and up and grabbed the tank and I thought I can't do this," he said. "I can't do this... it is too hard."
He went back to the boat but after 20 minutes said to himself he was not dying there.
He jumped back in the water, still getting smashed by the waves, but persevered.
He would swim breaststroke and backstroke. When he was too tired to swim he would pull on the rope, drag the fuel tank in and throw his body over it to hold his weight.
Before too long he became too sore to pull himself with his arms onto the fuel tank and instead tied a loop on the rope, stepping on it to take the weight off his body.
Suddenly, he looked at the shore and it was close, he could see trees on the beach and he thought he saw people.
He shouted at them but they weren't there.
But this encouraged him, until eventually his feet touched the bottom.
Ben then walked backwards until he hit the shore.
"Knocking on his door in a pair of jocks and women's crocs"
After nine hours on the tinnie and another three swimming to shore, Ben then walked a couple of hundred metres to a fishing hut.
The taps had been removed and all he could do was pool his hands and lick drips from a pipe like a cat.
But once it stopped dripping he knew he needed to get moving; his wife would be worried about him now.
A pair of women's yellow Crocs had been left sitting at the hut and, despite being three sizes too small, he put them on and set off for help.
He passed four or five private properties but nobody was home, except for a barking dog, which he looked in the eyes and told he "had no time" to deal with it.
"I wasn't going to go through all that and then die from some stupid dog," Ben said.
Eventually he saw a man drive into his property and started banging on his door, in his underwear and women's crocs.
"He said 'what do you want here?'," Ben said.
Surprised, the man knew Ben needed help, invited him in and gave him a drink of water and two Ferrero Rocher chocolates and offered to drive him back to Clairview.
Ben rang his wife, Larnie, to meet him there.
But he didn't head to hospital. After telling a neighbour about the ordeal, they decided the tide was right to put a boat back in the water to collect Ben's gear from Aquila Island.
Every bump on the ocean hurt his head as dehydration began to take its toll.
"Sorry, I've had a bit of an ordeal honey"
It wasn't until Ben realised he had fallen asleep on the drive to Mackay that he knew he needed to go to hospital.
But before he could do that he had to go to Caneland for some clothes.
Waiting in the car while his wife went shopping, he rang his eldest daughter Monika to say happy 20th birthday. "I wished her a happy birthday and she said 'you're a bit late'," he said.
Then he told her of the ordeal he'd been through, and she said "how dare you nearly die on my birthday Daddy".
After a few hours in hospital, he was discharged. Yesterday he was exhausted, red-eyed, emotional and mostly laughing a lot.