Solo sailor’s dramatic rescue after suspected sunfish collision

A young sailor attempting to circumnavigate Australia has been rescued after a 24-hour emergency operation, including two failed attempts.

Queensland sailor Xavier Doerr, 22, was attempting to break several records for circumnavigating Australia when he triggered his emergency beacon at around 5pm on Friday (7 July 2023), after a storm descended in the Great Australian Bight.

Two bulk carriers were sent to the area to assist with the search after the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) located Doerr’s vessel 630km west of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island and about 720km east of Esperance, southern West Australia.

Image courtesy of AMSA

It took until Saturday morning (8 July 2023) for the vessel to be located by an aircraft operated by the Royal Australian Air Force.

Doerr was safely brought aboard the bulk carrier Theodore JR around 6pm on Saturday on the third attempt.

Weather conditions were confirmed by AMSA to be ‘severe’, with winds gusting at 110km per hour and 6-metre seas.

Communication with Doerr had been lost for “an extended period of time on Friday,” Doerr’s shore manager, Lee Randall, told MailOnline. “‘At that point in time he’d sustained some injuries and there was some water ingress into the boat and he genuinely feared for his safety.”

Speaking to Australian media, Doerr says he believes his vessel hit an ocean sunfish, causing a collision that ended his journey.

sunfish Per-Ola Norman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Sunfish. Image courtesy of Per-Ola Norman/Wikimedia Commons

Doerr says his vessel was surfing down a large wave at speed when he came to “a very abrupt stop”.

“I hit an object and kind of folded over it,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne. “The boat capsized subsequently, putting the mast in the water.”

In the Southern Ocean, sunfish are a common obstacle for sailors.

Doerr told the radio station he had “had done a visual check of the horizon and says he didn’t see any floating debris” but his depth finder had picked up objects about 10 metres below the surface. “I believe it was a pod of sunfish,” he says.

“Given the fact that I didn’t have a hard crunch on collision I can rule out that it was a container and I assumed that it was in most likelihood a sunfish.”

There are five species of sunfish in the Australian waters. The large, slow-moving creatures take their name from their habit of floating near the surface, appearing to be sunbathing.

In January 2023, a salvage dispute erupted over the ownership of the yacht Huntress, which was abandoned at sea after being damaged during the 2022/3 Sydney to Hobart race.

Water police were called to rescue the crew of the 40-foot yacht after the vessel struck an unidentified object, which tore off a section of its rudder. Skipper Victoria Logan has told media she believes the object was most likely a sunfish.

Doerr arrived back on dry land last night (9 July 2023). Despite the misadventure, he says he is already planning his next oceanic mission.

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