TWO men rescued off the Clarence coast after spending 14 hours at sea must be glad they packed the esky.
John Lynch, 34, and Paul Maher, 25, were on a social fishing trip to celebrate their last day of work for the year on Friday, but recent repairs to the hull of the old cabin cruiser they were on appear to have failed. It started taking on water off the Ballina coast around 3.30pm.
They managed to make a mayday call and put on lifejackets before being forced into the water.
Ballina Jet Boat Rescue and a Police Marine Rescue Unit began searching around their last known location, off the South Wall in Ballina, and Westpac Rescue helicopter searched from the air.
The helicopter continued searching with the aid of night vision goggles up until midnight on Friday, without success.
The scale of the search was increased at first light on Saturday and six aircraft and seven rescue vessels were part of a search co-ordinated by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
The men's submerged boat was spotted by the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter crew about nine nautical miles north-east of Yamba about 6.05am. They
then spotted another object in the water further north which turned out to be the two men clinging to their esky.
Helicopter crewman Jethro Lampe said they were "pretty exhausted but otherwise in good spirits" when they were winched on board. They were treated for hypothermia and taken to Lismore Base Hospital.
Sergeant Graham Hill from the Tweed Marine Rescue Unit said the men were "very, very lucky".
He said weather conditions were favourable for the men, who were aware there was a rescue operation going on while they were in the water, but ultimately their lifejackets and esky probably saved their lives.
Paul Maher celebrated his birthday yesterday. Both men received their boat licences in the past three months. For John Lynch, it was his first time in the open ocean. EPIRB location beacons were not required for the trip as they were not travelling more than two nautical miles from the coast. The men declined a media interview.