Man overboard in the Mentawais!

When I heard that Brett Archibald had fallen over board in the middle of the night off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia and that he had already been missing for more than a day, I thought that my fellow countryman was a goner for sure.

The chances of being found when you are adrift at sea are small, even when your shipmates are aware that you have gone over board and are actively searching the immediate area where the accident happened.  Spotting a bobbing head amongst the waves during the daytime in the vastness of the ocean is extremely unlikely. At night this will be impossible.

When I sailed in the same area some years ago, one of the first things our captain taught us about life at sea was that if anybody ever fell overboard, the first person who saw the incident should never take their eyes off the victim. Lose sight of him and you might never see him again. Even if people do keep track of the swimmer, turning a large vessel around takes time and getting back to the original spot where it happened is very difficult without a GPS mark. Specific techniques have been developed for this situation, but it remains a very dicey prospect. As I mentioned in my book about my own surfing adventure in the Mentawais, many captains never even attempted a rescue in the bygone days of sailing ships. Turning a large ship around with only the wind to propel you is a huge task and by the time you managed it, the ship would have drifted far away from its original position. Sailors often purposely never learned to swim in those days, so that they would die a quick death if they ever fell from the rigging or slipped on deck.

Archibald was also thinking along these lines. The Cape Times reported that the fifty year old man tried to swallow water in order to drown himself when he realised that he had been abandoned, but his sense of self-preservation would not let him go through with it. His ship mates only realised that he was gone several hours after he had fallen over board and he was left treading water with nothing to cling to for buoyancy in the darkness and in very rough seas. Imagine passing out on deck from seasickness and waking up in the water as your ship sails away from you. This must be everybody who goes to sea’s worst nightmare.

Against all odds, the South African surfer survived.

That he managed to cope with this kind of psychological trauma in addition to the extreme physical strain he was subjected to says a lot about him as a person. He sounds like the kind of guy you want to have next to you when an earthquake or a tsunami hits.

Eventually Archibald was picked up after 28 hours in the water, dehydrated, sunburnt and with holes in his face from being pecked by seagulls. After all of this, he now says that he wants to carry on with his surfing holiday. To pass up on the waves this place has would be just too hard to bear. Now, that’s a true surfer!

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