THREE people have lost their lives and two others were left clinging to a capsized catamaran in what has been described as a 'traumatic' and 'confronting' maritime disaster.
Police marine command investigators have confirmed a married elderly couple, both aged 78, and a family friend, a man aged 67, died when their boat capsized in hazardous coastal conditions on Thursday morning.
The couple's son, 50, and granddaughter, 16, were pulled from the boat by volunteers and treated for hypothermia. They remain in a stable condition.
Police will try to piece together how a day on the water ended in tragedy as a difficult salvage operation begins in rough coastal conditions.
The incident occurred about 13 nautical miles off Stockton's coastline. The 11-metre vessel, carrying five people, hit trouble in hazardous sea conditions and flipped.
An EPIRB - an emergency beacon - was set off about 10am Thursday. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority received the distress call and immediately tasked the Westpac rescue helicopter from Belmont.
Meanwhile veteran boater and manager of Port Stephens' business Imagine Cruises, Frank Future, was also out on the water off the Hunter's coastline and heard the call come over the radio.
"When it first came over on the emergency channel the helicopter crew suggested it might have been a light aeroplane crash," he said.
"They quickly realised it was a vessel. We were hugging the coast because it was very, very choppy.
"Winds were westerly hitting at 30 to 35 knots when they first came in - that's 70 kilometres. Further off the coast it would have been fierce."
What first responders found was a "very,very confronting scene" according to Ambulance NSW Inspector Luke Wiseman.
Three people were dead in the water and the two others were clutching onto the overturned vessel.
"It was quite a traumatic scene for all," Inspector Wiseman said.
"Quite high sea conditions, with significant winds. It was rough when they got there and they had a lot of debris to content with in the water."
According to police the vessel left Shoal Bay at 8am, heading south to Ettalong. When the mayday alert was made Marine Rescue crews from Newcastle and Port Stephens raced to the location, with police marine command and the RAAF.
While the helicopter crew winched the two surviving people to safety, marine teams worked to retrieve the bodies.
The two patients were taken to John Hunter Hospital in a stable condition to be treated for hypothermia.
"I can't recall a loss of life like this, especially off a small vessel. It is very tragic," Mr Future said.
NSW Ambulance confirmed the people were wearing life jackets and were travelling as a group. Unfavourable sea conditions have stopped the salvage operation. The catamaran's position will be monitored until it can be retrieved.
"We'd like to acknowledge the work by all the rescue agencies involved," superintendent Grant Healey, Commander, Marine Area Command said.
"Even in those tragic circumstances we'd like to remind all people in the boating community about the importance of safety equipment.
"It was the boat EPIRB that was set off that was able to tell the marine rescue authorities were to go and save them.
"In relation to your boating season make sure you've got your safety equipment on the boat."
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