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Real Life

Real life: "I was shipwrecked and left to die"

If I wanted to save my mates I had to risk my life

By Brittany Smith

Michael Williams, 49, from Yamba, NSW shares his true life story;

The turquoise ocean stretched all the way to the horizon as I leant back in my chair and dipped another prawn into the cocktail sauce.
"This is the life," I sighed.
With a river fisherman for a dad, I'd grown up by the ocean and loved spending time in it.
When my old mate, Charlie, asked me to take up prawn trawling with him, I couldn't resist.
For three days we'd been catching prawns off Byron Bay with Charlie's other mate, JJ.
Prawns only come out at night so our world looked like an endless, twinkling sky as we threw nets out and hauled them back in.
It was stunning.
After our last catch, we cleaned up and I headed below decks for a quick nap while Charlie steered the boat.
It felt like I'd only just closed my eyes when a loud crash jolted me awake.
My stomach churned as I fell through the air.
We must have run into something that tipped us over.
I'd landed on the ceiling but I couldn't see anything until my eyes adjusted to the darkness.
I have to get out or I'll drown, I panicked.
I could hear the roar of water rushing in.
It was pooling at my feet and quickly rising.
Suddenly, Charlie was next to me, splashing through the water as he tried to find a way out.
I didn't know where JJ was.
The water had risen up to my chest when I finally saw a window.
I slid it open, helped Charlie through then gripped the edges.
Broken glass slashed my chest and legs as I struggled to clamber out but I had to ignore it if I wanted to survive.
The Sea Rogue. Pictures exclusive to Take 5
I was relieved when Charlie and I broke the surface, gasping for air.
Seconds later, JJ swam over, bobbing on a plastic tub from the ship.
Using the tub to float, we finally caught our breath.
We were nearly 20km from shore and hadn't told anyone where we were going.
In the dead of the night, there was no chance we'd be found, even if a search party was looking for us.
Our last hopes were dashed as we watched our boat sink beneath the water.
"If we're out here much longer we'll be eaten by sharks," I muttered. "My legs were shredded and I'm bleeding badly."
It was so dark, there was no way we'd see a shark approaching before it attacked.
Me and JJ flying over Byron Bay.Pictures exclusive to Take 5
Terrified, I tried to steady my breathing.
I wasn't married and didn't have any kids, but I worried how my mum would cope if I died.
I cleared everything from my mind and focused on thinking of her.
Parents often said they could tell when their child was in crisis.
Maybe I could get a message to her telepathically.
Please send help, I silently begged.
Dressed only in a singlet and briefs, I shivered in the freezing water.
Five hours passed and our fates only looked worse.
Charlie's legs had tired from treading water while JJ had a bad back and could barely swim.
Although Charlie rarely talked about his health, he'd lost so much weight lately I was sure he was unwell.
If we wanted to be saved, I'd have to swim to shore.
It was the only way.
"No-one's coming," I finally conceded. "I'll swim to the bay and get help."
JJ and Charlie looked horrified.
"We have to stick together," Charlie pleaded. "Someone will come."
Me beside the window we escaped through. Pictures exclusive to Take 5
But deep down they both knew we were a lost cause.
"I'll bring help," I promised.
I gave them one last strained smile and pushed off from the tub.
At first, swimming felt euphoric.
I'd been treading water for ages already and my muscles loved the chance to move more freely.
But by the time an hour had passed my body ached.
The sun was rising and I could feel it burning my head.
Cramps throbbed through my limbs every few minutes but I had to push through the agony.
I had to save my mates.
With each stroke, I glanced around anxiously, waiting for a shark to tear me apart.
The sun had already moved towards the west of the sky, when I finally walked to the shore and collapsed on the sand.
I was so buggered, it felt like I was in a dream.
Sea Rogue where she settled on the bottom.Pictures exclusive to Take 5
I waved to a couple on their mid-afternoon walk but they scurried away from me.
After more than 14 hours in the water I must've looked a sight.
My singlet was ripped to shreds and I was nearly naked.
Finally, someone rushed over and an ambulance arrived.
"My mates are still out there," I croaked.
They sent out a rescue chopper while I was rushed to hospital.
I had terrible sunburn and needed 30 stitches to close the wounds in my feet and legs.
When Mum visited, I told her about the message I'd tried to send her.
She went white as a ghost.
"I woke at 2am with this feeling that something was wrong," she admitted. "But I thought I was just being silly."
I couldn't believe that after everything I'd been through, Mum had gotten my message all along.
The next morning, I turned on the TV above my hospital bed and saw JJ getting out of the chopper.
Charlie's memorial plaque.Pictures exclusive to Take 5
I hadn't heard if they'd made it yet but, as soon as I saw JJ standing alone, my stomach sank.
Deep down, I knew Charlie was gone.
A doctor confirmed my fears.
Sometime during the night, Charlie had been too weak to go on.
He drowned, leaving JJ alone.
The poor bugger had treaded water alone for nearly 24 hours before the chopper spotted him.
A week later, I attended Charlie's funeral.
He'd left behind two young sons, not even 10 years old.
I'd lost my best mate.
My little girl, Gypsy, as a baby. Pictures exclusive to Take 5
In those first few miserable weeks the only thing that got me through was writing.
I wrote through my grief and as the years passed, I came out the other side.
Now, 10 years later, I have a supportive partner, Amelia, and our wonderful daughter, Gypsy, seven.
They're the best things that ever happened to me and they've helped me work through my trauma.
I've even published a book about my experiences, Sea Rogue: A True Survivor's Tale In Spoken Word.
I still love the ocean and I often take Gypsy out fishing.
But I haven't set foot on a prawn trawler since.
Every morning I thank the universe that I'm alive.
I just wish Charlie was around to enjoy it, too.

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