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My boat sank in the dead of night – and I had to save my seven-year-old son | Life and style

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A week or so before Maike Hohnen took the fishing trip that would change his life, he drove past a building site and spotted a sign that read “Free”. Nearby, on a patch of grass, were a hundred or so plastic buckets. Instinctively, Hohnen pulled over, grabbed eight or nine of them, and threw them in the back of his pick-up truck. “When I got home I put a couple in my boat,” he says. “I thought to myself, these will come in handy one day.”

Hohnen is a keen fisherman. Well, that’s rather understating it. He started fishing commercially when he was just 14, helping out in school holidays, before turning it into a 20-year career. He has fished on German trawlers, undergone long stints on factory ships in the North Atlantic and has spent the past 11 years working off the shores of his home country, Australia. When he’s not working? “I spend my spare time fishing, recreationally,” he says.

It must be in the blood: Hohnen says his son Julian caught his first fish before he could walk. “He basically just pulled himself up on a rod that I’d left out at the beach and started reeling it in,” he says. “He has salt water in his veins.”

When Julian was small, whenever he wasn’t in kindergarten he would be by his father’s side. Even when Hohnen was processing fish in a factory or refuelling large commercial boats, Julian would be there, looking on, chatting with his workmates. “I don’t want to say ‘like a dog’,” says Hohnen with a smile, “but wherever I went, he came with me.”

And so, when Hohnen embarked on a fishing trip with his friend Stephen Jeacocke one day in June 2019, it was only natural that Julian would come along, too. In fact, it was Julian, then aged seven, who begged them to turn the trip into an overnight one, so that they could wake up at daybreak and fish – the perfect time to catch snapper.

Maike Hohnen on his new boat, painted coast guard yellow. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

The three of them left on their boat around lunchtime, sailing nine miles (14km) out from the town of Caloundra, Queensland. After an enjoyable afternoon, Julian laid down his sleeping bag and went to sleep in the boat’s half-cabin area at about 7pm. Jeacocke was next to hit the sack. Hohnen says that one of them would usually stay awake to keep watch – but he was also feeling tired that evening. He spoke to Jeacocke and they agreed it would be fine; Jeacocke was a light sleeper anyway, easily woken by disturbances. Hohnen dropped anchor, made sure everything was secure, and went to sleep next to his son. They didn’t bother putting on life jackets, since it would have been too uncomfortable to sleep.

The next thing Hohnen remembers is having wet feet. “Instantly, I knew there was an issue,” he says. He yelled at Jeacocke to wake up. While they were sleeping, the anchor rope had wound itself around the boat’s propeller and started to pull the vessel down. There was already a lot of water in the boat. Hohnen tried to start the engine to turn on the deck pump but nothing happened, and he realised that the engine was already under water.

Hohnen called the coastguard. He couldn’t have known this at the time, but back on dry land, the officer who answered his call was working his first shift in the radio room. This panicked emergency call at 1.30am, from someone saying their boat had taken on water before the communication went dead, would be nobody’s idea of being eased into the role.

Hohnen knew he had to get out of the boat quickly. He reached to grab Julian and seconds later began to inhale salt water. Within a minute of Hohnen waking up and calling the coastguard, the boat had capsized.

Jeacocke was thrown from the boat, but Hohnen and his son were now being dragged down by the boat’s canopy. Hohnen quickly understood that he would have to swim down, holding Julian, at a faster rate than the boat was sinking in order to get out from underneath the soft top.

When he emerged on the surface of the water, he saw the boat’s lights fading as it sank. Apart from that it was pitch black. “I had to tread water with Julian on my arm,” he says.

Hohnen can’t remember how long he did this for. A minute, maybe two, he thinks. And then, only a metre away from where they floated, something popped up to the surface: two of the buckets he’d absent-mindedly thrown into the boat before the trip.

Hohnen in his back garden holding a large plastic bucket
One of the life-saving buckets. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

Hohnen grabbed one and Jeacocke the other. Before Hohnen’s phone died in the water, Jeacocke managed to get a brief call out to the Australian police and told them they were in the water with no life jackets.

With Hohnen’s phone out of action, all they could do was hold on to the floating buckets and wait. “I know how to swim,” says Hohnen, “but I was fully aware that I wouldn’t be able to manage the nine miles back to shore.”

He tried to think rationally. He had reasons to be hopeful. They’d got a call out, so help must surely be coming. And rather than panicking, Julian was proving to be the most optimistic of the three. “He was the brightest,” says Hohnen proudly. “He was the one who assured us that everything would be all right, that we could still see land and that help would be on its way.”

But help, if it was coming, was taking its time. Hours passed. June means winter in Australia, and while the water was a merciful 21C that night, it’s not an ideal temperature to stay in for any length of time. Hohnen remembers that the sea was fairly calm, but points out: “If you’re under up to your shoulders then even the smallest chop will crash over your head.” They tried to turn themselves around so that the waves would hit them from behind.

Hohnen knew there were sharks in the area, but as a seasoned fisher this didn’t bother him: “There were bronze whalers and that sort of thing but they don’t really attack humans. We are not on their dinner list,” he says. “I never thought about that once.”

His main problem was holding his son tight to his hips the entire time. “Of course my arms were aching,” he says, “but there wasn’t really an option. I knew I would hold on to Julian until the rest of my life, and that I had to keep hold of that bucket as well.”

The fortuitousness of the buckets bobbing up on the surface so close to them had been a lifeline – not just physically but mentally, too. They gave Hohnen reason to hope someone was looking out for them. “I believed that the Lord would have given us those buckets to calm us down and make us realise we had to hold on,” he says. Is he a religious man? He pauses. “I went to Bible studies as a child,” he says. “I wasn’t really practising it. But out there with a bucket in my left hand and my son in my right hand? Of course I was praying.”

Around daybreak, Hohnen realised that his son had stopped talking as much. Soon after, he had pretty much stopped moving. He was losing consciousness, but Hohnen knew he was alive because he was still spitting out the water in his mouth whenever he was asked to. “It’s very hard to talk about,” says Hohnen, with a deep exhale, when I ask him to relive these moments. Holding it together to tell this story is evidently not easy for him. Sometimes I wonder if our phone line has gone dead but it’s just Hohnen gathering himself. “He didn’t really have life in him, if you know what I mean?” he says, his voice wavering.

Shortly after dawn, Hohnen saw a police boat coming towards them. It was “probably only about 400 metres away” when, suddenly, it veered off to the south-east and disappeared. Twenty minutes later, the coastguard did the same. Despite being so close, neither crews had seen them. They could hear a helicopter buzzing, but lost in the ocean holding two buckets they were hard to spot. They carried on waiting, and Hohnen carried on clinging.

Finally, a large vessel called the Nordic Star sounded its horn repeatedly. “They had spotted us and alerted the water police,” says Hohnen. Within moments police were at their side with a rescue helicopter above. Hohnen remembers telling the diver to take Julian first – and his son being winched into the helicopter. He then recalls grabbing on a cargo net and being pulled onboard a police boat. And that’s the point at which he passed out.

Hohnen by the water
Hohnen still goes fishing in the sea near his home in Queensland, but is reluctant to stay out overnight on his boat again. Photograph: David Kelly/The Guardian

When he came round he was in an ambulance, on the way to hospital. Once there, he was given some devastating news: the wind chill from the blades of the helicopter had sent Julian into shock. His heart had stopped. A paramedic on the helicopter had revived him, but he was now in a coma. The doctors could not say whether he would survive, but they believed that if he did it was likely he would have severe brain damage. Julian would probably need to learn how to eat, talk and walk again.

After going through so much, Hohnen barely knew how to respond to this news. “It all felt very far away from me, so surreal,” he says. After waiting for so long to be rescued, he now had the agonising wait to see if his son would pull through.

Less than 24 hours later he got his answer: Julian opened his eyes, looked at his dad and said: “What am I doing here? Let’s go fishing!”

Did everyone laugh?

“Absolutely,” says Hohnen. “The doctors couldn’t believe it. Julian was trying to pull all the attachments from his nose and throat and asking if he could go home.”

Such was his son’s frustration at being told he would be in hospital for the next few weeks, or maybe even months, Hohnen had to buy him a toy rod so he could pretend to fish from his hospital bed. In the end, Julian was home within the week. It was less than a month before he was out fishing again, on a friend’s boat on the Brisbane River. Hohnen says that Julian doesn’t seem to have been physically or mentally scarred by what happened that night.

It has been more emotionally challenging for Hohnen. He has since met the paramedic who resuscitated his son in the helicopter and has been able to thank the coastguards, too. He’s been able to get a full grip on how lucky they were. Medical staff have told him that they each had a 5% chance of survival after what they had been through. The coastguard commander told him that it was extremely fortunate they hadn’t been wearing life jackets, as their buoyancy would have left them pressed up inside the roof of the sinking boat.

Hohnen has a new boat now, but unlike his son he is less comfortable with some aspects of his old life. “I do have trouble staying overnight,” he admits. “It gives me a lot of anxiety. I know I would never, ever put the anchor back down again.”

And yet he has been out overnight again, largely because he has had no choice: Julian, now 11, is always begging him to do so.

“As soon as he comes to a body of water, he has to fish,” says Hohnen, with a mixture of disbelief and pride. “You can’t stop that boy.”

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