Lost boaties: 'Critics can stick it, we had an adventure'
When Tony Higgins saw an old wooden boat advertised for eight grand on the noticeboard at the Goolwa supermarket, he knew he had to have her.
The 33-foot Magrel was solid jarrah and built by famed Port Lincoln-based Finnish boatbuilder Axel Stenross in 1956. In short, she had some pedigree.
The 57-year-old builder and fisherman could see her potential, could see sunny days on the Lower Lakes.
What he couldn't see was the fact he'd spark the biggest air-sea search in South Australian history.
That search, Mr Higgins maintains, was unnecessary, as he and his mate and deckhand, Derek Robinson, were never in serious trouble and never asked for assistance.
And he has a blunt message for those critical of his actions.
"Yeah, they can stick it up their arse," he laughs.
"Honestly though, they need to get a life and spend a bit less time critiquing people from an armchair. I went and bought a boat. How else was I going to get it back? Fly it?
"People have been punching around the ocean for thousands of years. They never had anyone to go out and rescue them, and I never expected anyone to look for me. I'm self-sustaining and if I f..k it up, then I have to pay the price."
But there were no stuff-ups, Mr Higgins says, just some bad luck involving the Magrel's propeller and a few changes of plan.
The skipper says he and Mr Robinson weren't far out of Coffin Bay last Thursday when they hit something on the surface and snapped a blade off the prop.
"We hit a turtle, a submerged log, whatever it was, and took a blade off," he says.
"That took us down to half speed - two-and-a-half or three knots (4.5km/h-5.5km/h). We were still in phone range, so I got hold of a mate and said 'look, this is what's happened, we're going to kick it into low, go at half speed and take double the time. Everybody chill out and I'll see you on the other side'."
That's not what happened, though. Instead, alarms were raised when nobody had heard from the pair after two days, triggering a huge air and sea search involving the Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Mr Higgins says he had considered returning to Coffin Bay or diverting to Port Lincoln after damaging the propeller.
"Once I started that was it," he says. "I had a weather window, and if you have a plan then you always have a contingency plan, and then another one, just in case."
He does admit, however, that the Magrel's course beneath Kangaroo Island wasn't part of the original plan.
"Because we were travelling at such a slow rate, I though instead of going through the (Investigator) Strait, where there are so many things to run into, that we'd just go along the bottom," Mr Higgins says.
"So we got a compass bearing and just went all night."
The pair planned to finish the voyage by taking the old vessel through the Murray mouth and into Goolwa, but they overshot the mark and instead found themselves further to the south-east, near Salt Creek.
"We popped up about 60km south of Goolwa, and I'm not bragging or anything, but I don't reckon that's a bad effort," Mr Higgins says.
And he admits that tackling the notorious Murray Mouth in a boat at half power was never a realistic option.
"Not with three blades on the prop, we wouldn't have got into the river," Mr Higgins says. "You really have to pick your day and yesterday wouldn't have been one of them. You need a few gee-gees going through there. You don't want to be buggerising around, you'll do yourself a mischief."
Mr Higgins met Mr Robinson, who works at Woolworths in Goolwa, about six months ago and he jumped at the chance of an ocean adventure with his new mate.
"He's never been to sea in his life, so I threw him in the deep end," he says.
"But I have to tell you, he was a deadset champion."
Mr Higgins fell in love with the sea after a shearing mate convinced him to take a job on a scallop boat out of Geraldton, WA, in the early 1980s. "That first time out on that scallop boat I thought, 'this is it'," he says.
"From then on, I've been all around Australia fishing for prawns, scallops, tuna, you name it. The only state I haven't fished in is actually my home state of South Australia."
He loves the sense of solitude that can only be found on the ocean.
"I even said to Derek one night out there, 'you know what, Derek, this is what I love about the ocean - the whole f..king world could blow up and you'd never know'," Mr Higgins says.
"Well, sure enough, that's exactly what happened."
The first Mr Higgins knew of the huge search was when his phone started pinging with text messages once he'd sailed back into mobile range on Thursday morning.
"I saw that and I thought, 'jeez, I wish I was closer to the river-mouth so I could just piss off in there!'," he laughs.
Mr Higgins has copped fines from SA Police for having an out-of-date electronic positioning beacon and flares on the boat and, ironically, for not having a recreational vessel licence.
"I have a Master Five (skipper's) ticket!" he says.
"I'm bloody over-qualified! Can you believe that? It's gold, isn't it? You have to laugh."
The father of two grown children, Mr Higgins says his kids and partner have become used to his adventures over the years.
"To be honest, if I'm not doing something crazy they'd be asking what the matter was," he laughs.
"My son's mother actually posted something on Facebook saying, 'can everyone support my son after the loss of his father' and I thought, 'Jesus, I'm cooked already!' That was a bit surreal."
As for the Magrel, Mr Higgins hasn't given up on his dream.
"There's a bit more caulking that needs to be done, and I need a new propeller now, but she just needs a bit of love," he says.
"She's a good old boat. I'll just be puttering around on the river on summer's days."
Originally published as Critics can stick it, we had an adventure