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Man plucked from ocean after 8 hour ordeal

Nigel Fox and AMSA crew

In February 2021, our Cairns-based Cobham Search & Rescue crew met with a solo sailor they were instrumental in rescuing, after he miraculously survived an 8 hour ordeal in rough seas off the Northern Territory coastline, wearing only his life jacket.

It is a rare occurrence for our SAR crews to meet with survivors, due to our lifesaving work being conducted from the air. Having the experience to meet people they have played a role in rescuing is both a great learning experience for our crew, and also very humbling.

Under a contract with the Australian Government, Cobham Aviation Services provides Search & Rescue operations Australia-wide, in partnership with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).

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The incident

On 4 January 2021, Cobham was briefed by AMSA to search for Nigel Fox, a solo sailor lost overboard in rough seas approximately 93 kms off the coast of the Northern Territory, and our Challenger aircraft and crew were dispatched from Cairns. At the same time, the NT Police were briefed to dispatch a marine vessel from Nhulunbuy.

On arrival on scene, the Cobham crew detected the survivor’s EPIRB signal and he was sighted in the water. Given the conditions and the size of the target, maintaining visuals was challenging, so the Cobham crew utilised their Video Anomaly Detection System (ViDAR) and Electro Optics (EO) to pinpoint his location.

By the time Nigel was located by our aircraft, he had already drifted 23 kilometres away from his yacht. Without his personal locator beacon attached to his life jacket, the likelihood of anyone knowing he was missing, or him being found alive, was very slim.

Our Cobham Crew then successfully dropped a liferaft and VHF radio to Nigel, allowing him to safely climb onboard, make contact with our crew and await rescue by the NT Police marine vessel.

Of significance, this was the first time a solo raft has been deployed from an aircraft to a person in the water by our Search and Rescue crew.

Nigel was ultimately rescued by the NT Police marine vessel five hours after he was located by our aircraft, and they transported him to Gove District Hospital suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, as well as two broken ribs from the night prior.

About the survivor

55 year old Nigel Fox is Southampton-born, but is now an Australian citizen. He learned to sail as a youngster on the Rivers Itchen and Test in the UK.

Nigel had been sailing with his beloved cat, and companion of more than 15 years, Stinky, for three and a half years prior to the fateful incident.

Nigel’s yacht was retrieved by friends in Nhulunbuy about 30 hours after his rescue. Thankfully, Nigel’s beloved cat, Stinky, his companion for over 15 years, was found safely onboard.

To be able to shake their hands and say “you were the person who spotted me, you were the person I was talking to on the radio” – it’s really good. And they’re part of a far larger network of people that saved my life.

Nigel Fox, survivor

Aircraft mission coordinator Ollie Marin, who was aboard the aircraft which located Mr Fox, described the difficulty in finding him and dropping the life raft.

What actually picked him up was three cameras on the nose of the aircraft called ViDAR, which is actually a technology to automatically detect different colour and shape based on the background of the water. Thanks to Nigel's bright lifejacket, the cameras automatically took a picture and gave his position, and then we set up to drop a life raft. Until he was in that raft it was pretty tense, and it was a big sigh of relief when he was finally in and we knew he was safe.

Ollie Marin, Aircraft Mission Coordinator

Mr Marin and the other AMSA crew were grateful to meet the man they rescued and praised Mr Fox for carrying lifesaving equipment.

It's an awesome feeling, getting to actually meet him and shake his hand

Ollie Marin, Aircraft Mission Coordinator
Nigel Fox with SAR crew

Words can't really quantify the happiness. They've given me a new lease on life.

Nigel Fox, survivor

We respectfully acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners on whose lands we work, live and fly. We pay our respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.