A worldwide search for a man who rescued a drowning couple off the coast of Croatia has ended with the discovery of Coledale's Zen Joyce.
The British couple, Craig and Jackie O’Neill, were sailing with two friends off Hvar the evening of September 21 when they hit rough seas and their boat capsized.
Mr O’Neill later issued a public appeal to find the man who came to their rescue. This week he had the chance to say ‘thankyou’ after social media well-wishers led him to the rescuer, 32-year-old Mr Joyce, of Coledale.
Mr Joyce and his girlfriend were taking a taxi boat from their cruise ship to port when he saw the overturned boat and directed the taxi’s skipper towards it.
Unable to swim, the O’Neills clung to the boat. Meantime, Mr Chance, a lifelong surfer, dove into the turbulent water and swam to Mrs O’Neill. He was in the process of bringing her towards the taxi boat when he noticed the overturned boat had completely sunk.
Speaking to the Mercury from France, Mr Joyce said he was worried for Mr O’Neill when he made the decision to turn back.
“He started bobbing under the water, each time for a little longer, so I told Jackie we needed to go back for him, otherwise it would be too late. I was worried he may go under and not resurface before we could reach him,” he said.
“Once we reached Craig, I took him under my other arm and swam them both back to our boat.”
At the boat, other members of the cruise party threw a rope over the side and one got into the water to help pull the stricken pair aboard – a difficult task given the height of the boat and Mr O’Neill’s exhaustion.
Mr Joyce also helped one of the couple’s friends, who had been thrown a life ring, to board another passing boat.
The former Bulli High School student is in the midst of a two-year European travel adventure with girlfriend, Katherine Lumello.
He was unaware the O’Neills were attempting to reach him until this week, after Mr O’Neill’s post went viral.
In the post, Mr O’Neill credits Mr Joyce with saving his life.
“I could not make the swim to safety,” he wrote. “I’m a rubbish swimmer, I was on my own and exhausted. I had no options left and really thought, ‘that’s it, I’m going to die here’.”
“This man is an absolute hero. If it wasn’t for him things would of been very different. We desperately need to find him, we have to thank him.”
Mr Joyce spoke to the couple on Monday via video call and plans to reunite with them in person in London later this year.
“Once we reached the port, the ambulance was there and that was the last we saw of them,” Mr Joyce said. “I was sure they would be OK, but never thought I’d see them again.”
“It was humbling that they reached out and I appreciate the extreme efforts they went to to find me.”
“I don't consider my actions to be heroic. I was brought up to treat people the way I'd like to be treated - and if I'm ever in need I'd hope someone would do the same.
“I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I'd stood by and watched the situation unfold, knowing I was able to assist.”
Mr Joyce is the son of the late Ray Joyce, a much-loved local identity who once swam into the ocean off Coledale to retrieve a 13-year-old boy who has a shark still attached to his leg.
He received a Queens Commendation for Bravery for his role in the 1966 emergency.
Mr Joyce Snr served as a lollipop man at Coledale Public School for many years and at Christmas would go about his duties dressed as Santa or a Christmas tree.
He died of cancer in 2008, aged 66. An amenities block covered in murals was later installed at the beach in his memory.
The story Humble Zen, of Coledale, hailed a hero after worldwide search first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.