Aaron Bunch Journalist with Australian Associated Press | Collection of published work | + 61 484 008 119 | abunch@aap.com.au

Aaron Bunch
Ropes may have choked trawler’s propeller

An inquest investigating the deaths of six fishermen off the Queensland coast has heard ropes may have led to their boat capsizing.

March 27, 2019

Ropes wrapping around the propeller of a fishing trawler that capsized in rough seas off the Queensland coast could have caused six men to die, an inquest has heard.

But the surviving crew and key witnesses disagree with the theory, saying the ropes are likely to have wound onto the FV Dianne’s propeller after it rolled and sank in wild seas on October 16, 2017.

Coroner David O’Connell says an inquest in Gladstone into the crew’s deaths is exploring whether three ropes caught around the propeller could have caused the boat to lose power and become vulnerable as it battled wild seas.

“Those ropes appear around the prop shaft, especially, to be very tightly wrapped as if the propeller was moving, tightening them on (when it happened),” he told the court.

“Which I didn’t think was likely if they were simply being pushed by the current (after the boat sank).”

Police divers located the bodies of Adam Hoffman, 30, and skipper Ben Leahy, 45, trapped inside the upside-down vessel 30 metres below the surface off the town of 1770, near Bundaberg.

The bodies of Eli Tonks, 39, Adam Bidner, 33, Zach Feeney, 28, and Chris Sammut, 34, have never been found.

Sole survivor Ruben McDornan disagreed with Mr O’Connell’s theory.

“It can also be the tide pulling on (and) spinning the prop around because it free spins out of gear, so a loose rope can tighten itself,” he said.

Mr McDornan escaped the 18-metre boat’s cabin seconds after it rolled in darkness about 7.30pm.

After squeezing through the wheelhouse’s partially opened door, he swam through debris to the surface where he clung the upturned hull until it sank about fours later.

After spending the remainder of the night treading water, a passing catamaran rescued the Dianne’s lead diver the following morning after its crew heard his screams for help.

At the inquest on Wednesday, he told Mr O’Connell if the ropes had wrapped around the propeller while the motor was in gear the crew would have heard the engine revving.

However, he conceded if they did latch on and cause the Dianne to slow in the rough conditions it was possible the boat could have then floundered and moved into a “perilous” position, resulting in it capsizing.

The boat’s former skipper, Adam Kelly, who wasn’t rostered on when the boat sank says it’s more likely the mess of ropes found after the boat was raised onto land wound onto the propeller while the boat lay on the seafloor for four months.

“It doesn’t look like they’re tight enough for the motor to actually be going,” he said.

“It’s spinning quite fast when it’s moving … I had a very close look at it when it came out of the water.”

The inquest continues on Wednesday.

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