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April 11, 2021

Inquest finds surfer drowned in ‘perilous conditions’

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Irish traveller Stuart Butler, who drowned of Cape Byron on July 19, 2014.
Irish traveller Stuart Butler, who drowned of Cape Byron on July 19, 2014.

Chris Dobney

An inquest into the death of 20-year-old Irish backpacker Stuart Butler at Cape Byron in July last year has recommended changes to the way surf conditions are publicised in Byron Bay.

State coroner Michael Barnes concluded that Mr Butler, who was an inexperienced surfer, drowned in treacherous waters off Cape Byron on July 19, where he was surfing with two travelling companions: Michael Fuller (19) and Levi Fahrenholtz (26).

The three travellers had been working together at Mojosurf’s ‘Spot X’ at Arrawarra before moving on to Byron Bay where they again worked for the company and shared a house.

On the fateful day they decided to surf at Tallow Beach, where Mr Fahrenholtz – the most experienced of the three – had surfed the previous week without incident.

Although there is a sign at the beach warning of potential rips and currents it was ignored by the trio, leading the coroner to find it ‘lacked credibility because it failed to reflect current and changing conditions’.

‘Mr Fuller knew from experience that on a calm day Tallows [sic] Beach was in fact a reasonably safe place to surf and many people have and continue to swim there,’ he continued.

The trio were also unaware that surf warnings were regularly being broadcast on local radio, with the coroner remarking, ‘young travellers are not assiduous consumers of electronic news media’.

The rough weather quickly carried the friends 500 metres towards ‘the towering and rugged cliff faces of Cape Byron’, where they risked being smashed against rocks.

Mr Fahrenholtz told the inquest that onlookers gestured to him to swim out away from the cape, which he did. He was then swept north of the cape from where he was able to swim to safety.

Roiling spume

Mr Butler and Mr Fuller, however, were swept up against the rocks.

After several attempts, Mr Fuller managed to pull himself up onto a rock ledge and he gestured to Mr Butler to do the same.

Mr Fuller told the coroner that Mr Butler ‘was in the process of doing this when another large set of waves hit him and swept him off the rock shelf and back into the roiling spume’.

The coroner said that when this occurred ‘Mr Butler disappeared under the white water and did not resurface’.

‘He was flailing around in the foam and white water as waves continued to pound him. He sank from view. Mr Fuller screamed for him but he did not resurface. Mr Fuller said he never saw his friend again,’ the coroner said in his report.

Mr Barnes praised the volunteer surf lifesavers, who he said, ‘undertook demanding and potentially dangerous water based searches over three days in horrendous marine conditions’.

He added that while ‘young men are notorious risk takers’ he was ‘satisfied that had Mr Butler and his colleagues realised how dangerous the seas were they would not have exposed themselves to the risks that they did when they went into the water on the day Mr Butler died’.

Coroner’s recommendations

The coroner has recommended changes to the way surf safety warnings are communicated in Byron Bay, including ‘real time signage’ of surf conditions.

He has recommended Byron Shire Council ‘consider installing signs that are updated daily with current information about the surf conditions’.

He also recommended that accommodation providers should be tasked with communicating surf warnings to their guests.

‘Accommodation providers are better placed than news media to communicate relevant weather warnings to their guests,’ the coroner said.

‘Byron Bay police meet bi-annually with many of the budget accommodation providers who cater to the backpacker market.

‘I recommend that the NSWPF Local Area Command instruct the officer attending that meeting to regularly encourage all accommodation providers to institute a system for bringing weather alerts and warnings to the attention of their guests,’ Mr Barnes said.

The coroner stopped short of recommending Byron Shire Council consider increasing lifeguard patrols of Tallow Beach, saying, ‘I was also informed the Byron Shire Council recently obtained a safety/risk audit of all beaches within its boundaries and I did not have an opportunity to ascertain how it had responded to that report.

‘In those circumstances it would be inappropriate of me to make a formal recommendation about the issue. However, I intend causing a copy of these findings to be forwarded to council for its consideration,’ he concluded.

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