WITH his doomed prawn trawler ablaze in the middle of the ocean, all Bernie Welsh could do was sit tight in his dinghy and wait for help to arrive.
The Macksville 40-year-old had tried to put out the engine room fire on Seven Seas with two extinguishers, but was forced to bail when flames soon consumed the vessel 14 nautical miles southeast of Coffs Harbour on Thursday night.
Another trawler skipper working that night, John McGovern, had received a panicked mobile phone call from Bernie saying he had to get off his boat.
He had talked to Bernie earlier that night, so he had a good idea of his position.
"It appeared the fire took hold so frighteningly quick," John said.
"It seems to have started around the battery area. He'd been having battery problems a week or two ago and made the required replacement.
"When the fire broke out it took out his electrical gear. When everything was lost, including his radio and computer, that was when he discovered the fire. He had no other means of making contact other than his mobile phone.
"He only had enough time to get the dinghy off the roof of the wheelhouse. That was it."
Bernie also managed to let off two red flares and an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB).
Two yacht skippers enroute to Coffs Harbour radioed Coffs Harbour Coastal Patrol at 7.30pm to say they'd seen flares east of Sawtell. Water police were scrambled.
A local resident also saw the flares out to sea through his telescope and contacted the Coastal Patrol.
John aboard Aquarius and the skippers of two other trawlers, Peter K and Toni Kylie, steamed to help Bernie, with Aquarius first on the scene an hour after the initial distress call.
"He was further south from where I thought he was," John said.
"When I got to him, the boat was burnt to 18 inches above the water line. Bernie was in his dinghy half a nautical mile from his vessel.
"He was in shock and I was a little bit concerned about him. He'd inhaled a fair bit of smoke and noxious fumes. He was very glad to see us."
Seven Seas went down quickly.