Adrift for 9 hours with sharks

By Michelle Coursey

Conrad Anderhold gripped the fishing rod tightly, ready to fend off the 1.8m shark that was circling him and his mate Dave Morrison.

Hours earlier, the pair had been hurled into the Hauraki Gulf from their capsized fishing boat. They huddled together in the water to stay warm, kept afloat only by their life jackets. As night fell, their hopes of being found alive were fading - they knew their searchers were heading home.

Anderhold knew if the pair had any hope of surviving, he had to swim for shore. "He turned to me and said, 'no matter what happens, I know it's not your fault'," says Morrison, breaking down in tears. "And he just disappeared. Within a few seconds he was gone."

It was two days after Christmas when Morrison, 42, and Anderhold, 23, headed to sea. On their second fishing trip together, the pair launched Morrison's boat, Tardis, from Maraetai, on Auckland's east coast, around 6pm.

Morrison, who has one permanently straightened leg due to a previous injury, says he insisted they put on their life jackets before boarding.

After a successful couple of hours' fishing off the coast of Waiheke Island at Flat Rock - and with a chillybin full of snapper and kahawai - the pair headed back to shore.

Halfway home, about 9pm, there was a loud bang, and the men turned to see water in the back of the boat. The new bilge pump Morrison had bought just days before broke. Unconcerned, Morrison, who served for six years in the army, started bailing.

"It was at that point that Conrad said 'you're wasting your time'.

"I looked up and the water was just pouring across the back of the boat."

Anderhold rang 111 while Morrison grabbed an emergency bag, which contained his torch and first aid kit, but lost it as the boat overturned. His cellphone, sealed in a plastic bag, fell out of his pants.

"It seemed like 10 seconds before we were in the water. If we hadn't had our life jackets on, I doubt we could have got them and put them on. It happened so fast."

The pair were left bobbing beside the capsized boat - it had hit something, possibly a submerged log, an investigation has since found - waiting for the rescuers they were sure would come.

As the skies darkened, the men watched boats searching for them near Waiheke Island - but they weren't alone.

"Within what seemed like a couple of minutes, a shark turned up, and was swimming across the front of the boat. It was only about 6ft long though," Morrison said.

Anderhold was more worried: "I threw one rod away, and kept one rod to fight off the sharks. It was pretty scary, because we were still covered in blood from the fish."

The shark moved on, but the pair were getting cold in the water, which Morrison estimates was about 18C. "We were shaking a bit, so we were moving our arms around in the water, and holding on to each other to keep the heat in."

After some time, they could no longer see the lights of search boats, and a Westpac Rescue Helicopter had failed to spot them.

They picked out three markers to locate themselves in the water: a beacon on Waiheke Island, the Sky Tower, and lights at Omana Beach, and decided to swim for shore.

Tying themselves to an empty fuel tank, the friends began to swim towards the beach; however, Morrison's leg and a previous shoulder injury hampered their efforts, and after an hour the current had prevented them from making any progress.

Some time into the night, Anderhold decided to swim on his own to shore for help.

"It's one of the scariest things to do, to leave someone behind," Anderhold said. "That's a big call."

"He was particularly worried he was going to leave me, and I wasn't going to be found," Morrison said. "We untied the tank off me, and Conrad tied it to him again, and he tried getting on top of it, riding the waves and wind in towards the shore.

Breaking into tears as he relived the terrifying moment, Morrison said Anderhold told him the accident wasn't his fault then disappeared into the night. "Between the swell and the darkness, I couldn't see him."

FROM THEN, the two endured separate ordeals. Anderhold swam and rode the fuel tank for more than four hours, though he was chafed and blistered within minutes. "I was exhausted, and I honestly thought I wouldn't make it. The whole time I just wanted to fall asleep, because I was so cold."

He estimates he saw five sharks as he pushed on toward the beach, and was terrified they would attack him. He was thinking about family, friends, and Dave. "Dave (was) dependent on me. If I didn't make it back, who would know he was out there?"

Left to wait, Morrison could do little but keep his head above water and think "positive things". "I was thinking about my partner and that she'd kick my ass if I didn't come back," he said.

He also thought about the 72-hour ordeal Robert Hewitt, brother of former All Black Norm Hewitt, endured in February 2006. "I thought to myself if he could do that, I could make it a couple of days. That's what I thought I would have to do."

Morrison recalls red flashing lights on Maraetai Beach at some point; possibly that was when Anderhold finally reached shore about 4am.

Rescuers and Te Pene beach residents pulled Anderhold from the water, and bundled him into an ambulance. He told them, over and over, that Morrison was still alive.

While Anderhold was rushed to hospital to be treated for hypothermia, Morrison continued to drift.

A helicopter reappeared at daybreak, but it was searching along the cliffs: "I was a bit pissed off, because I thought they were just looking for my dead body. I remember looking at them and thinking 'I'm not dead yet'," Morrison said, again tearful.

Another fishing boat passed within 50m, but the crew didn't see him. Then shortly after 6am, as he made an exhausting effort to wave his black cap in the air, the rescue helicopter crew spotted him. "I looked at him, and he saw me. I gave the thumbs up, then I saw the Deodar police launch was coming towards me."

Incredibly, Morrison managed to climb the ladder on to the launch. "The first thing I yelled was 'is my mate okay?', and they said yes. That was such a huge relief."

Rescuers from the police launch and the Westpac helicopter service have applauded the pair for wearing well-made life jackets and continuing to move to keep warm.

Anderhold is determined to get back on the water, while Morrison has decided "life is too short", and proposed to his partner of four months, Julie Kumar, last week on Maraetai Beach.

Both say their stubborn natures saved them - although agree that without life jackets it would have definitely been the end.

As for the boat, which was salvaged by other fishermen, Morrison has sent it to the dump.

"I don't want to see it again. Too many bad memories."

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