A distraught mum has described her “worst nightmare” as today marks exactly 13 weeks since her fisherman fiancé went out to sea and never returned.
At 7.30am on November 21, Natasha Croydon took a phone call from her partner’s boss which would turn her world upside-down.
The mum-of-two was told her fiancé Robert Morley was missing and a search operation was underway to find him after the boat he was working on sent an emergency alarm, reports WalesOnline.
She said: “I woke up and I had a missed call from the boat owner and I just knew then, right at that moment, I knew he’d gone.
“I cant explain it. I phoned back straightaway and they said: ‘We can’t find the boat, the boat’s gone’. I said: What do you mean you can’t find the boat?’ and he just said: ‘Tash, it’s gone’.”
Natasha, from Permbrokeshire, made the 300 mile trip to Newhaven to join the rescue efforts as HM Coastguard vessels, helicopters and RNLI lifeboats scrambled to find the three fisherman onboard.
Around 24 boats from the fishing community in Brighton and Eastbourne all joined the huge search mission after it was revealed the boat, a trawler named Joanna C, had sent the emergency alarm as it started to sink three miles off the Sussex coast having left the fishing town of Newhaven.
“I was waiting for my mum to arrive and I was on the phone to Robert’s sister and she said they’d recovered someone,” Natasha said.
“I was praying it was Robert and the kids were hanging on to me, screaming, hoping it was daddy, and it wasn’t. It was Dave, the skipper, so that was really hard because I so much wanted it to be Rob and it wasn’t. All day I kept waiting, thinking they might bring him, and they didn’t.”
Dave Bickerstaff, the 34-year-old skipper, was rescued from the water after he was found holding onto a lifebuoy almost four hours after the tragedy. The body of 26-year-old Adam Harper, from Brixham, Devon, was found by divers in the wreckage on Monday.
Natasha, who was due to marry Robert at a Welsh castle this summer said: “By about 7.30pm we got told to go to the back of the lifeboat station and the policewoman, the harbour master, and the coastguard were all there and just said they’re standing down the search and there’s 0.1 per cent chance of survival at this rate.
“My legs just went from under me and I just fell to the floor. It was just horrendous.”
Robert, 38, was never found and the search mission was called off on November 23.
Natasha, 40, then had to break the news to children Scarlet and Taylor and tell them their dad had gone with Taylor asking ‘Does that mean I haven’t got a daddy anymore?””
“It’s your worst nightmare, that phone call, saying the boat has gone down and they’re on the boat,” added Natasha.
“But I never thought it was going to happen and the ironic thing is it was his last trip and he was leaving at Christmas. It’s really tough to take because he was just doing it one last time to have a fantastic Christmas and we never got that.”
The following week a memorial was held for Robert but Natasha wasn’t ready to accept the reality that her fiancé was gone.
“It didn’t sit right with me. It’s my Rob, not anyone else’s, and I wasn’t ready to do that.” But Natasha went along and was overwhelmed by the “incredible” sight of seeing hundreds of people gathered for a candlelit memorial for both Robert and Adam.
Natasha says she still has so many questions and nobody knows the answers.
“Thinking about it isn’t going to bring him back but at the same time I’d like to know what happened. All I know is what I’ve told my children which is that dad was in a life ring waiting to be rescued and he would have been cold and he would’ve been tired because he was tired – he’d been up 30 hours already.
“I just said daddy was tired and would’ve said to himself: ‘Give it five minutes and then the boat will come and find me’ and he just floated off. So in their head that’s how it is and in my head that’s how it is as well. I can’t deal with anything else other than that.”
The family are still desperate to give Robert the send-off he deserves, but Natasha said one thing that has kept her going is he prepared her as much as he could about what would happen if he didn’t return from sea.
She said: “There’s rocks, there’s currents, it’s like a washing machine, so he was very clear about that. He told me exactly what would happen if the boat went down, what the sequence was, how long they’d search for, when they’d stand the search down, and I kept saying: ‘I don’t want to know, it’s never going to happen, go away, I don’t want to hear it’.
“And he made me listen to him and he said: ‘You’ve got to know this stuff’ and I felt like he was walking behind me, carrying me, the first couple of days because I was just in robot mode, in a state of shock.
“Because of everything he told me he gave me that strength to keep going and I knew what was coming next, he prepared me for it, and I think it’s really important for people to know, especially in that line of work, and to have those conversations because it really helped me. He was with me even after he was gone. He gave that to me.”
For the time being Natasha is praying Robert’s body has been recovered from the sea. All she knows is a body has been found and the coroner has asked her to describe the socks Robert was wearing on the day he went missing.
“It sounds awful but that’s what I’m hoping for,” she said. “I hope it is Robert because we can lay him to rest and I think that’s important. We just don’t have any of that closure and I find that really difficult, especially with the children.
“And I’ve since spoken to lots of fishermen and something Robert never told me is that every time they put their foot on the ladder to get on the boat they know that could be the last time they step off the land. And I never even thought about that.
“It doesn’t leave you – every single time you know you’re risking your life. You don’t come blasé to that – that never goes away.”