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Sue Docker pictured smiling in Gladstone Hospital a day after she was rescued from two days at sea in 1983.

A LOOK BACK: How one woman survived an open-sea ordeal

News Corp Australia

IT WOULD be unbelievable if it weren't for her shining smile. Sue Docker, upright in a hospital bed, grinning for the camera after an open-sea ordeal most people wouldn't survive.

Sue was 28 when, in 1983, she went missing during a spear-fishing competition in the reefs located off the coast of Tannum Sands.

A strong current swept the Sydney woman away from other competitors.

She had nothing but a bright orange buoy, flippers, a snorkel and her formidable talent as an experienced skin diver.

Two days later she was found alive and well on Erskine Island.

Her story played out on the pages of The Gladstone Observer, and in national newspapers, for the agonising time it took rescuers to find her.

The Observer captured the jubilance in the city when it reported on her eventual rescue in its January 6 edition.

"Sue Docker's remarkable story is one of cool-headedness in a frightening situation but it is also one of incredible bad luck," the report read.

"While floating, clinging to her bright orange diving buoy for almost two days, she drifted past rescue boats, saw helicopters pass overhead and was even passed her by eventual rescuer on Erskine Island yesterday morning."

On the second day at sea, Sue had to survive in two and a half metre swells that made spotting her from the air difficult.

She told the Observer after her rescue how she watched the helicopters fly over in their search.

"When the helicopter flew over I leaned back from the float with my arm around it so they could see it. But they didn't," she said.

After drifting on the current for two days, Sue's moment of rescue came early on the third morning. The currents had brought her within four kilometres of Erskine Island, and she swam the final distance to shore.

"Police estimate she made Erskine on Tuesday morning at about 8am, an hour before a four-hour aerial search for her finished," The Observer reported.

A helicopter pilot named David Hogan was on a morning flight to Heron Island when he spotted her waving at him. He assumed she was a local. He kept flying.

But luckily for Sue, David came back. He swept over the island on his return flight and decided to stop.

"As soon as I saw her, she just fell down on her knees," he told The Observer.

"I guess she was pretty pleased to see someone."

The Gladstone Observer's front page on January 6, 1983, celebrating Sue Docker's rescue after two nights adrift in open ocean.
The Gladstone Observer's front page on January 6, 1983, celebrating Sue Docker's rescue after two nights adrift in open ocean.

Sue was admitted to Gladstone Hospital's intensive care ward for a day, suffering from dehydration, sunburn and chafing.

In the end, she survived the risk of a shark attack and of drowning while being bounced from reef to island and back again under rough conditions with barely any injuries.

Her ordeal took her not only to Erskine Island but also past Heron Island and Masthead Island.

After recovering, Sue didn't give up her love of spear fishing and skin diving. She was named the Australian Underwater Federation Champion in 1985.

Know anyone connected to this story, or want to see your own slice of Queensland history featured? Get in touch at hannah.busch@newsregionalmedia.com.au or on Twitter.