When Geoff Smethurst jumped onto the jetty at Paynesville, Victoria, he’d just come off the phone with Phil Ridgeway and he knew exactly what was needed.
“Geoff has a boating background and he knew our boats could handle what he had in mind. He chose us because we had Rivieras and they have a good cruising speed,” says Phil, owner of Jenisiph, a Riviera 43 Flybridge.
Geoff had come from Mallacoota to organise a rescue mission, soliciting help from his local boating community with permission from the authorities. It was late Thursday afternoon, January 2.
Since New Year’s Eve around 4,000 holidaymakers and locals had been trapped in the town – the roads cut off and poor visibility hindering air rescue. With more than 400,000 hectares of bushfires surrounding them, people fled to the coastline.
“Geoff said to me, ‘Phil, we need your help. We need boats in the next hour to rescue people from Mallacoota. Fair dinkum, they’re desperate, beside themselves, in a terrible state.’ I thought holy smoke, I’d better get organised!” Phil and his crew Rob Burns got prepared.
Another Riviera owner, Peter Reed, tells a similar story. “I was at the Cruiser Club looking at another bloke’s Riviera when Geoff came up and said, ‘You’ve gotta get your boat and help me get these people out of Mallacoota.’ Rivs hold plenty of fuel and they’re pretty quick so that’s why he asked us. There were four Rivieras in the end that went up to Mallacoota and Eden.”
Peter kicked into gear and took his Riviera 445 SUV, K’oma, to fuel up at Lakes Entrance where he met Phil. Although the overall design of a 445 SUV and a 43 Flybridge is different, their hulls are identical. At 7pm the two ex-plumbers set off into the Bass Strait at a cracking pace, though neither of them was too eager to travel the 110 nautical miles in a horizon thick with smoke.
“We had to get there and make the most of a reasonable weather window. We turned on our searchlight but it was useless. You couldn’t see anything but smoke and ash; it was frightening,” says Phil.
Six hours later the pair anchored off Mallacoota, with fires extending from Cape Conran lighting up the midnight sky. At 5am the rescue mission began with a series of tenders ferrying refugees to Jenisiph and K’oma.
Meanwhile, the navy evacuation was underway with HMAS Choules; due to the difficulty of boarding ferry boats and climbing rope ladders, it was limited to the able-bodied and those over the age of four.
Phil and Peter rescued 31 people – all of them families with children, many showing respiratory issues.
“We had to get out of there then and there – that was the window we had because after that we had a horrendous forecast. I must admit it was very emotional. They had tears in their eyes, even the blokes, they were hugging me they were so grateful. All covered in ash and black, the little kids too. They were that exhausted and they just fell asleep for the trip back, on beds, bunks, even the saloon floor,” says Phil.
It wasn’t until they had safely returned to Paynesville that Phil and Peter realised the enormity of the mission.
“We just did it, we didn’t think about it. We took these people out of a perilous situation. It wasn’t until everyone was finally off the boat that I was relieved that nothing had gone wrong,” says Peter.
In addition to Phil, Rob and Peter’s efforts, Dale Scott in his Riviera 6000 Sports Yacht and Ray Weinzriel in his Riviera 4800 Sports Yacht were also called to action. They journeyed from Metung to Eden and Mallacoota respectively, travelling more than 145 nautical miles in the same diabolical conditions. Together the two Sports Yachts rescued 33 people, including 17 children, bringing the total Riviera rescue mission to 64 saved souls.