Record of Investigation Into Death (Without Inquest)
Corners Act 1995
Coroners Rules 2006
I, Simon J Cooper, Coroner, have investigated the death of Geoffrey Arthur Clarke
(a) The identity of the deceased is Geoffrey Arthur Clarke (Mr Clarke);
(b) Mr Clarke died on or about 22 June 1965 approximately 5km off-shore from Seymour Point, at Bicheno in Tasmania;
(c) Mr Clarke almost certainly drowned;
(d) Mr Clarke was born in Hobart on 22 June 1947; was aged 18 years at the time of his death and was an unmarried fisherman; and
(e) I am unable to conclude whether any person contributed towards Mr Clarke’s death.
Circumstances Surrounding the Death:
Mr Geoffrey Clarke was involved with the fishing industry from a young age. At the time of his death in 1965 he was employed as a deck hand, with his brother, Robert, on the commercial fishing vessel, the “Nola Two”. The Clarke brothers were considered very proficient and capable within the industry.
On 22 June 1965 the vessel was off-shore from Seymour Point, near Bicheno. The boat and her crew had worked all day dredging for scallops and were preparing to conclude for the day when, due to the movement of the vessel in 2.5m seas, Robert Clarke fell overboard. Geoffrey Clarke, a strong swimmer, immediately went to his brother’s assistance with a life ring. Geoffrey Clarke assisted his brother into the ring and waited with him while the vessel returned to them. Robert Clarke describes remembering Geoffrey and he huddling together in the water and the boat, steered by its skipper Frank Turner, turning and returning slowly to him and his brother.
The next thing Robert Clarke recalls is being on the deck of the ‘Nola Two’ clutching a rope and then has no memory at all until the boat reached the Triabunna area.
Other than Robert Clarke, the only witness still alive when this matter was reinvestigated was Desmond Whayman, a retired fisherman, who had been involved in the unsuccessful search for Geoffrey Clarke. That search, carried out by fishermen working in the area, Police Search and Rescue personnel and apparently at least one aircraft, and conducted over some days, was unsuccessful.
At the time when Robert fell into the sea and Geoffrey went to his aid weather conditions were reasonably rough, causing the vessel to continuously roll and provide an unstable work platform.
It is also noted that the incident occurred in late June, during hours of darkness and the mid-winter water temperatures would lessen survival time in the water, if unassisted for a time. This is particularly so given the clothing Geoffrey Clarke is described as wearing – cotton combination overalls and a jumper, together with Blundstone work boots.
He was not wearing a life jacket – but that is hardly surprising in 1965. Similarly the ‘Nola Two’, like many vessels of its era, was not fitted with radio communication to alert authorities at the time, nor with lighting to assist in searching, other than on the bow and stern, and it was fitted with only the most rudimentary safety equipment.
The vessel skipper, Mr Frank Turner (who died in 1999), was considered by some of his peers to be less-experienced than others in the industry and the decision to be working at the time when others apparently sought shelter might be considered questionable. Given that Robert Clarke has no recollection of his actual removal from the water it is possible that in the heavy sea conditions and darkness at the time, the ‘Nola Two’ has struck, and stunned, both or either Robert or Geoffrey Clarke in the water and prevented Geoffrey Clarke indicating his location following Robert’s return to the vessel. However the effluxion of time makes any affirmative conclusion about this issue impossible.
There is no doubt in my mind Mr Clarke died on or about 22 June 1965 by drowning in the sea approximately 5 miles east of Seymour Point near Bicheno. There has been no trace of him from that day since and all the usual checks of the electoral roll, Government Departments including Births, Deaths and Marriages, several Financial Institutions, all other States and Territory Police data bases, Centrelink and Medicare reveal no trace of him at all.
Comments and Recommendations:
The circumstances of Mr Clarke’s death are not such, particularly given the effluxion of time as to require me to make any comment or recommendation. Clearly the outcome for Mr Clarke in the modern era of EPIRBs, PFDs, GPS and radio communication may well have been very different, but in 1965 those things were years in the future.
Before I conclude this matter, I wish to convey my sincere condolences to the family of Mr Clarke.
DATED: 17 May 2014 at Hobart in the state of Tasmania.