The wreck of the Nocturn that went down off Evans Head in 1979.
The wreck of the Nocturn that went down off Evans Head in 1979.

41 YEARS: Miracle as police solve missing sailor mystery

On September 24, 1979, Maria Moran and her husband took off on their second honeymoon - a boat trip from Byron Bay with her sister Phillipa (Pippi) and her husband Billy.

However, a sudden storm knocked out their engine, and with their boat "Nocturn" sinking, they were thrown into the water.

The last time she saw Pip and Billy was huddled in a small dinghy, unreachable due to the huge waves as she and her husband Ray were washed into the water.

 

Six hours later, they were rescued by helicopter and taken to hospital, still hoping her sister and her beloved husband would be found.

The next day, Maria's sister's body was washed up on a Kingscliff beach, but Billy was never found, his gravestone marked "lost at sea.", with the family given no closure as to his final resting place.

Survivors recall 1979 boat sinking off Evans Head: As her brother-in-law's bones have finally been identified 41 years after he was lost at see, Maria and Ray Moran speak of their experience on the boat, and their relief that they can put the case to rest.
Survivors recall 1979 boat sinking off Evans Head: As her brother-in-law's bones have finally been identified 41 years after he was lost at see, Maria and Ray Moran speak of their experience on the boat, and their relief that they can put the case to rest.

It all changed with a phone call, 42 years after the horrific incident, with police notifying Maria and her family they had linked a jawbone found on the Salt beach near Kingscliff in 2011 to DNA which showed it was Billy.

>>> RELATED: Human remains wash up on Kingscliff Beach

"I was so excited, just to know, to kind of know what happened," Maria said. "That he was found on the same beach, and obviously they were together nearly right to the end which is comforting.

"It's a bit of closure."

A picture of Bill and Pippi Moran, who died when their boat sank in 1979 off Evans Head. Remains of Bill's jaw that washed up on a beach in 2011 have finally been identified using new DNA technology.
A picture of Bill and Pippi Moran, who died when their boat sank in 1979 off Evans Head. Remains of Bill's jaw that washed up on a beach in 2011 have finally been identified using new DNA technology.

For nine years, the unidentified jawbone was one of dozens of unidentified remains cases on the NSW Police Missing Persons Registry, and continuous searches on DNA databases failed to find a direct match.

In August 2020, following a 'familial DNA' search, NSW Health Pathology alerted NSW Police to a possible link to a biological relative.

A NSW police spokeswoman said familial DNA searching used complex technology to identify potential relatives who have provided their DNA to an existing database; the closer the biological relationship, the greater the chance a relative will be identified.

"The familial DNA link in the jawbone case led investigators to a 34-year-old man imprisoned in Goulburn Jail in 2020 and whose DNA profile had been added to a database for convicted offenders in NSW," the spokeswoman said.

An investigation by the Marine Area Command and State Crime Command's Missing Persons Registry confirmed the inmate was the nephew of a mariner lost at sea 40 years ago.

In another remarkable coincidence, the jawbone washed up on the Kingscliff beach also on September 24, exactly 32 years after the boat went down.

Maria described Billy as a champion swimmer, a very outdoorsy kind of guy, and the love of her sister Pippi's life.

She remembered their excitement as they began the journey on a beautiful day at Byron Bay.

"It was a new beginning for (them), they'd only been married a year, and they'd bought this boat to go down to Salamander Bay and run it as a cruiser."

As the day progressed, the storm clouds grew on the horizon, with the waves getting bigger and bigger.

"Maria, Pippi and Bill were getting a bit of sea sickness, and it got worse and worse," Ray said.

"And we ran into the biggest southerly you've ever come across."

The dingy that Pip and Bill were last seen in after their boat
The dingy that Pip and Bill were last seen in after their boat "Nocturn" went down off Evans Head in 1979.

With the motor cruiser designed for the harbour, and not the open ocean, Ray said the skipper was having trouble keeping it in a straight line.

"When we got hit by the first wave, we lost and engine, and with only one, it was a matter of time."

Maria remembers the fear they felt, but watched as Ray and Billy kept busy, organising things for when they might have to go into the water.

"We were just frightened," she said.

With the radio torn from the wall from the waves impact, Ray performed a makeshift repair, and the five on board took turns sending Mayday signals, unsure as to whether they could be heard, or whether the radio was working at all.

"At one point I wrote a letter on one of the maps, and put it in a bottle letting people where we were, that we were in the Nocturn and we were in trouble," Maria said.

"And someone found that bottle, which is crazy."

With the boat sinking rapidly, the five people tried to use the craft's small dinghy, but it instantly capsize under the combined weight, and they ended up in the water.

Unable to hold onto the ribs of the upturned dinghy, Maria was washed away into the ocean, with Ray immediately going after her, finding pieces of the boat to act as a makeshift raft.

"We went one way, the captain went another … but I could see Pip and Bill were in the dinghy," Maria said.

"They had righted it, but the water was moving so fast there wasn't any hope of getting to them.

"But we thought oh great, they'll be able to get help. There was a sense of hope."

Thankfully, someone had heard their distress signal, with a Hercules pilot on his second last search run spotting the pair in the water.

"I'll never forget, he flew down so low over the top of us, and I'll never forget, I saw him lift up his thumb (and I thought) they've seen us," Ray said.

A helicopter came, first finding the captain of the ship, and then Maria and Ray, all winched aboard the helicopter.

"We wondered what had happened to Pippi and Billy, we just assumed they were still in the dinghy, because you would think that was the best place to be," Maria said.

"I assumed they would be all right, we did ask them and they said they hadn't found them.

"They were both young, both athletic and we though they've got every chance and they'll eventually get to land."

After spending the night in hospital, Maria and Ray went back up in a plane to help search for the others, and later that day Pippi was found washed up on the beach near Kingscliff, and all hope they had of seeing Bill alive all but vanished.

Maria and Ray Moran speak of their experience when their boat went down off Evans Head in 1979. Maria's sister and brother in law died in the incident, and police have just identified a piece of Billy's jaw, which washed up in 2011 at Kingscliff.
Maria and Ray Moran speak of their experience when their boat went down off Evans Head in 1979. Maria's sister and brother in law died in the incident, and police have just identified a piece of Billy's jaw, which washed up in 2011 at Kingscliff.

"We were talking to the rescue people, and they said the sharks were just notorious out there," Ray said.

"We can only assumed what happened to him, they went close to land and he decided to swim, but that's just our opinion."

Fast forward 40 years, and Maria said she was amazed when she received the phone call telling her they'd discovered something.

"They said they'd found this jawbone, they did the DNA and they'd matched it - and it's Billy," she said.

"The gravestone was always Billy was lost at sea, and now they can be together.

"It's good, it's a lovely feeling."

Taken on a tour of the new Marine Rescue and forensic facilities by NSW Police, Maria said it was amazing to see how hard the forensics and police had worked to get to a conclusion.

"We're so grateful to be here and meet these wonderful people and the job they do," she said.

"It's just a tragedy that two wonderful people like that, and who knows what they would've done … were taken so young."

"We miss them every day."

 

Listen to more details of the case

NSW Police have created their podcast which gives extensive details of the incident, and the investigation that led to the discovery. Titled "Lost At Sea", the four part series is available on Apple or Spotify, or through this link: https://www.podcastoneaustralia.com.au/podcasts/nsw-police-state-crime-command-investigations