Like most people Tony Symes has a treasure trove of memories crammed into an old shoe box.
Mixed in among the cherished letters and family photos, is a tattered piece of paper that holds significant memories of a day and night the Gabo Island caretaker is unlikely to forget.
The day after Boxing Day, 20 years ago in 1998, Mr Symes was working his usual Christmas shift on the island, accompanied by his family.
He had been working on Gabo for a few years at the time and had seen storms brewing up countless times before. But he recalls there was just something amiss with the strong winds that had been whipping around the island on that particular day.
“There had been really strong northwesterly winds of around 60 knots all day. It was unusual -we don’t normally get westerlies that strong on Gabo,” Mr Symes said
“It was around 4.00 in the afternoon when everything went pear shaped,” he recalled. “The wind suddenly changed to a southwest and that made for a wild situation.”
The fleet of the 1998 edition Sydney to Hobart Yacht race had set off the day before. And with the weather the way it was, Mr Symes knew there was surely to be trouble.
As soon as the wind changed, distress calls began flooding through the island’s marine radio thick and fast.
One thing you never want to hear on a radio is a mayday call but there was one call after the other.Tom Symes
Mr Symes remembered being struck with an immense feeling of helplessness. Gabo Island was within the closest proximity of the yachts. But he knew there was nothing he and his family could do to help save the distressed sailors.
“We could hear everything -all the messages that were being sent out and we just couldn’t do anything.”
Powerless to the catastrophe that was rapidly unfolding on the sea around them, the family took turns diligently copying down the messages they were overhearing.
“We thought at least this way if any information was lost in the airways then we could verify what had been said.”
A map of Gabo Island and Bass Strait hung above the radio desk. As Mr Symes heard the names of the individual boats affected by the catastrophe, he quickly scribbled their names onto sticky labels and stuck them to the corresponding position on the map. The family sat around the radio the whole night.
“A particularly upsetting moment was when a helicopter we were listening to told some sailors because of rapidly deteriorating weather, the chopper would be unable to rescue them overnight and they would try again in the morning. It was just heartbreaking.”
However, on that sleepless night by the marine radio Mr Symes heard one lesser known success story that he believed escaped the media’s attention.
“In the early hours of the morning we heard that commercial ships stood outside the yachts on the seaward side to give them shelter and protection.
“I remember one ship was standing by a yacht and then I heard another ship talking to it. They said ‘Well, you’re due in port before us – so we’ll take over for a while’ you know that sort of thing. It was bigger than just helicopters.”
It seems as though the camaraderie of the commercial ships were not the only details to slip away unnoticed.
The handwritten details of that treacherous night at sea never saw the light of day either.
They did, however, become part of the treasured keepsakes of Tony Symes’ memory shoe box. A memory that Mr Symes described as “one of the most alarming nights of my life”.