Vessel Name: Lucca

Francis Joseph Newby
Drowned at Sea; Body never recovered
1 April 1978

LTMP Coronial Finding

Coronial Finding for Francis Joseph Newby

Francis Joseph Newby was born on 1 October 1925 in Onslow. He was 52 years old when he vanished at sea when the fishing boat Lucca was hit by a wave and capsized. It was not until 7 August 2019 that an inquest held at the Coroner’s Court in Perth established beyond all reasonable doubt that the identity of the deceased person was Francis Joseph Newby and that death occurred on or about 1 April 1978 at sea off Turtle Bay, Dirk Hartog Island.

Why did it take so long to hold an inquest and establish his death?

In 2017 it was confirmed there were a number of files relating to the long term disappearance of people who had been in Western Australia at the time of their reported disappearance. The reported number of Long Term Missing Person’s (LTMP) made it unrealistic at the time to absorb those matters into the already long outstanding inquest list in a timely manner. In 2018 approval was given for a coroner to work exclusively on the LTMP cases, part time for 12 months, if they had reasonable cause to suspect that the person had died and the death was a reportable death. The anticipated outcome of this project was that by June 2020 the majority of LTMP cases would be resolved and that future missing person files would be dealt with in the normal course of business. So, in 2019 an inquest into the disappearance of missing person Francis Joseph Newby was finally investigated by Coroner Evelyn Felicia Vicker.

The fishing boat, Lucca, was owned by Antonio Buemi of Carnarvon. The Lucca was professionally built in 1973 and of timber construction. She was a round bilge fishing boat, 32 feet in length and 12 feet across the beam. She was fitted with a deck and cabin and was powered by a 120 horse powered Ford Lees engine. She also carried a radio, four lifejackets, a life raft and flares along with distress flares. She was a registered fishing vessel and noted as being ‘fit for purpose’.

On board the Lucca on 29 March 1978 when she left Carnarvon were Francis Joseph Newby (52) skipper and his deckhand Duncan Patrick Forbes (37). Newby held a Grade 2 Skippers ticket and had over 30 years of experience operating fishing vessels. However during the inquest it was also noted that Newby was not a serious fisherman and not as experienced as his length of time as a registered skipper would indicate. Newby was a pensioner and according to a statement by Kenneth Charles Firns (the son of the skipper of the rescue vessel Julie-Ken) he generally went fishing when he needed additional funds to support his alcohol habit.

In his police statement Forbes said that he was approached by Newby on Sunday, 26 March to go fishing with him for a percentage of the catch. Forbes was a shearer by trade but given there was not much work around at the time he was interested in in the proposal. He had little experience as a fisherman or crewman but it appeared to him that the Lucca was well equipped with safety requirements.

Forbes stated that he and Newby left Carnarvon on Wednesday, 29 March to go fishing. Around 6.30 pm on Friday, 31 March the Lucca anchored a quarter of a mile off Turtle Bay, on the northern tip of Dirk Hartog Island approximately half a mile east of Hartog Landing. They intended to stay there the night however they did notice that the sea was building but given the swell was moderate they decided it would be safer to stay on the Lucca and ride out the conditions. It is unclear whether Newby and Forbes were aware of Cyclone Alby off the coast at the time and that the tip of Dirk Hartog Island was probably not the safest anchorage.

At about 1.00am on 1 April Forbes stated that he and Newby were asleep on the deck of the Lucca when a wave broke over the boat causing it to completely roll over and capsize.

Both men were washed overboard and forced towards the sea bed receiving bruises and grazes from the debris in the process. When they surfaced they saw the Lucca’s fibreglass icebox floating nearby and swam to it. The icebox was about 6 feet long and 4 feet wide with handles at each end, rope was attached to the handles. They both took hold of the ropes and held on. Forbes noticed that Newby was coughing up blood and was having trouble breathing. He was getting weaker. Forbes assumed that he must have been hurt when going overboard. Newby only had one working lung due to tuberculosis which would have depleted his respiratory capacity in such conditions.

While they were clinging to the icebox Forbes saw a 12 foot wave approaching and warned Newby to hang on as they were only about 200 yards from the shore. The wave broke over the icebox and when it passed Newby was no longer clinging to the rope on the handles, Forbes could not see him anywhere. Forbes held on to the icebox and around 30 minutes later drifted ashore to Turtle Bay about 500 yards south of Cape Levillian.At first light he searched the beach for Newby but there was no sign of him. He located some flares that had been washed ashore from the Lucca and set them off.

The vessel Julie-Ken was anchored around the top of Dirk Hartog Island when the skipper’s son, Kenneth Firns, noticed a disturbance amongst the birds on the beach at Turtle Bay. Looking through his binoculars he saw Forbes running up and down the beach. He recognised him because he happened to be his next door neighbour, Newby was naked and running around. It so happened that on that day two off-duty policemen were onboard the Julie-Ken, Peter Burgoyne and Mr Rowlands. Burgoyne and Firns swam to shore to assist Forbes and in the first instance he was reluctant to leave the beach as he wanted to keeping searching for Newby. Once Forbes was safe on the Julie-Ken Burgoyne and Firns searched the shore locating the remains of the Lucca offshore and finding the icebox which had been washed up onto the beach. They found no signs of Newby and it was apparent that Forbes had walked a good 4 miles from where he was first washed up to where Firn’s had seen him from the Julie-Ken.

Mr Firns Snr. radioed a report through to Carnarvon Coastal Radio and other vessels approached the area but given the horrendous seas further attempts to walk the shore were unsuccessful. A search plane arrived around 2.30pm on 1 April and the Freycinet,the Fisheries vessel also arrived and joined in the search.

Once it was deemed safe further searches took place on the beach, however they were not able to locate Newby. The Julie-Ken with Forbes onboard returned to Carnarvon on the afternoon of 2 April with no sightings of Newby. Debris from the Lucca washed up on the shore and once the remains of the Lucca were retrieved the police collected property belonging to Francis Newby from the stricken vessel. This included his passport, record of Marine Services, a knife, fork and two spoons, an overnight bag containing clothing and a folder containing personal papers. His passport was returned to his younger brother, Bernard William Newby.

The inquest into the death of Francis Joseph Newby was eventually held on 7 August 2019 and on 5 September 2019 the Coroner, Evelyn Felicia Vicker, found that she was satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that Newby died as a result of drowning and that his death occurred by misadventure. Both his mother, Maria, and brother, Bernard, were deceased before the inquest was heard as was his crewman, Duncan Patrick Forbes.