The last thing Tony Purkiss saw vividly through his piercing blue eyes was a blood-red Asian sunset and two friends who, moments later, were to die in a suicide bomb attack.
That was October 1, 2005, beachside at a Balinese café. Four years on, the Newcastle yachtsman and father of two is adapting to a life of virtual darkness, having been rendered legally blind by the same blast.
Finding his tooth brush, distinguishing deodorant from the shaving cream, working a microwave – these are his fundamental challenges. Yachtracing … well, that’s just another hurdle to be confronted.
In his memory, Tony can still picture the faces of his wife Mary-Anne and children Luke and Skye, but in harsh reality he can see only shadowy outlines of them. The admission brings tears and a slump to his broad shoulders.
From despair, however, has risen a powerful will to restore normality to his family’s life. Purkiss has returned to his two passions, sailing and flying, while carving a new career as a motivational speaker.
He is living testimony to the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, for Bali was not Purkiss’s first brush with death. It was his fourth.
By Mark Rothfield
In the 1998 Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, he was aboard the Cole 43 Solo Globe Challenger that was rolled and dismasted by a breaking wave. With his leg badly broken, Purkiss endured a night of terror as the damaged yacht took in water, before eventually being rescued by a Navy helicopter.
In June 1999, the Purkiss clan was fortunate to survive a light plane crash at Armidale in regional NSW. Tony was at the controls, with Mary-Anne next to him and Skye and Luke in the rear, when windshear struck the aircraft on final approach.
“It tipped us up and dropped us,” Purkiss remembers. “We crash-landed in a paddock, dodging trees and fences and whatever. There was a ditch at the end and we hit that at 45 degrees, which folded the nose wheel and undercarriage. Wrote the plane off.”
The 2003 Sydney Hobart was another gruelling event that took a physical toll. Purkiss, then 43, arrived in Constitution Dock on December 30 and celebrated with a few beers and rums. New Year’s Eve was spent quietly while the night’s festivities were planned.
“I carted two boxes of beer back from the bottle shop and stored them, then I started feeling tight across the chest. I mentioned it to one of the crew, who happened to be a doctor … he looked at me and said I should be checked out,” Purkiss recalled.
“I laid down in the aft cabin and I heard the owner call an ambulance. When they came back to check on me, apparently I was having a seizure and was in full cardiac arrest.
“They worked on me for about 13 minutes, until the ambulance arrived.”
By January 2, Purkiss was scoffing pizza and quaffing champagne with the nurses to make up for missing out on New Year’s Eve.
Perhaps the cruellest irony for Purkiss was that he had no intention of going to Bali because of lingering reservations about terrorism. It wasn’t until the 11th hour that he booked – he couldn’t get on the same flight as his family, didn’t even have a passport.
That fateful October evening, 18 Novocastrians were gathered at the Jimbaran Bay restaurant table. There was an explosion at a neighbouring café, followed by screams and commotion.
Tony was sitting, facing Mary-Anne, when a second bomber approached. She saw him and sensed danger. “Before she could warn me, he screamed ‘Allah’ or something and pressed the button,” Tony said.
Several victims died instantly, while others, like Tony, would carry reminders of the atrocity for the rest of their lives.
Purkiss felt like his hair and face were on fire. His scalp had been detached and was bleeding profusely. Mary-Anne cradled her husband’s head in her lap while he cried: “I can’t see, I can’t see”.
Mary-Anne was also blinded in one eye.
Tony underwent emergency operations for a perforated bowel and collapsed lung, along with surgery to remove shrapnel. Placed on life support and in a coma he was air-lifted back to Australia.
As he recuperated at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital, yachting mates came out of the woodwork. His crewmates from the ’98 Sydney Hobart maintained a bedside vigil for a month.
LORD HOWE OR BUST
Even while hospital-bound, the keen sailor was intent on returning to the sea. Before Bali, Purkiss’s plan had been to take his yacht to Lord Howe Island. A sign above his hospital bed now read: “Lord Howe, or Lord how?”.
The “how” was soon answered, with Purkiss finding he had an intuitive feel for wind and waves. It was similar when it came to piloting a friend’s plane, as 500 flying hours afforded him that seat of-the-pants sixth sense.
“I was night-rated, so a lot of the instincts came from that. They teach you to fly in the dark without instruments,” Purkiss explained.
It’s no wonder that Ralph magazine listed Purkiss in eighth place in its 50 Toughest Aussies feature (Ayers Rock was voted No. 1). Little wonder, too, that the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia bestowed its 2008 Crewman of the Year award upon him.
Finally, one of the last – and in some ways most painful – stages of the voyage to recovery has taken place. Purkiss has just sold his prized yacht.
The Islander 56 Etosha was built in South Africa using end-grain balsa core and two layers of Kevlar. With watertight bulkheads fore and aft and a bow reinforced with stainless steel, it’s strong … just like its former owner.
“I’m hoping the next person will do what I haven’t been able to do. Swinging off the pick at some island and cruising the oceans,” Purkiss said.
Etosha at least helped Purkiss realise his Lord Howe dream last year. The 380-mile return trip to Newcastle took just over 48 hours, the yacht surging along at 10 knots under autopilot.
There’s also been a steady stream of delivery trips on racing yachts. Hamilton Island to Sydney twice, Hobart to Sydney and a couple of Gold Coast to Sydney trips.
“I’d be crazy to say that my lack of vision hasn’t been an impairment, but it hasn’t stopped me. I now do the same thing, but in a different way.”
The same could be said for Purkiss’s current vision to create a new Category 1 offshore yacht race that involves his beloved Lord Howe. The inaugural Butlers Newcastle Round Lord Howe Island Yacht Race will start on Mother’s Day next year … and they’re doing things in a different way.
At 770 nautical miles, the race will be 140 miles longer than the Rolex Sydney Hobart, but it has been timed to coincide with reaching conditions. True to Purkiss’s anti-discrimination credo, both yachts and multihulls are welcome to compete, fully-crewed or short-handed.
The racing division will sail non-stop, rounding the island then heading straight back to Newcastle Harbour. Entrants in the cruising division will enjoy a lay-over on the World Heritage-listed island, awaiting suitable weather for the return leg.
“I’ve sailed to Lord Howe 10 times and just love the place,” Purkiss said. “And there’s no better place to start and finish than Newcastle.”
More than 25 yacht owners have already logged their interest.
“People tell me I’m unlucky after all the things that have happened to me – Bali, the ’98 Hobart, my heart attack in 2003 and the plane crash – but I say I’m lucky. I survived,” Purkiss said.
After his heart attack on the Hobart docks, he was left temporarily with bright red eyes due to the amount of oxygen pumped into him during resuscitation.
“I got the devil’s eyes in Hobart and he didn’t want me,” Purkiss said. “I remember going down this white tunnel on a stretcher at Hobart hospital and the bloke upstairs didn’t want me either.
“I reckon I must be here for a long time.”