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Brett Archibald was lost at sea and forced to swim for over 28 hours. He encountered a shark attack, hordes of poisonous jellyfish and taunting hallucinations. He tried to kill himself but his mind wouldn’t let him. This is how he survived and how you will too (These 8 tips will save your life.)
“I’M DEAD,” thought the 50-year-old father of two as his legs kicked frantically in the water. It was 2am in Indonesia, and Brett Archibald found himself in the midst of an ocean churned by a tropical thunderstorm as his boat, the Naga Laut, disappeared into the darkness and left him screaming with rain drumming down on his head. A moment earlier, he’d been retching over the side of the boat – delirious and dehydrated from a feverish blend of food poisoning and seasickness. He and eight childhood friends were sailing from the mainland to the Mentawai Islands – a chain of 70 shards of the earth’s crust that cause currents to rise and curl into the best waves to surf on the planet. He tried to tread water but the waves smothered him. So, on that sunless morning off the coast of Sumatra, Archibald started to swim. Had he known he would only stop swimming 28 hours later, he might never have started. “I never swam to get anywhere; I swam to keep my head above water,” he says. His mind began to whirr with calculations. “I counted my strokes the entire time I was in the water – it was all subconscious.” Later, Prof Tim Noakes of the South African Sports Science Institute explained to Archibald that the mind has the ability to distract its owner in stressful situations. “Your mind was so occupied that you never thought about being exhausted,” Noakes told him.
“Absolute clarity came to me,” says Archibald. “I had two choices: one was to live and one was to die. I’ve only been married to my wife for 10 years. My daughter’s nine, my son is six. I’m not ready to go yet.”
Being hurled into a traumatic scenario requires a rational escape plan. But trauma is not confined to abandoned surfers; it applies to the majority of South African men. According to Journal of Traumatic Stress by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, 75% of South Africans experience at least one traumatic event during their lifetime. Fortunately, cheating death is what comes naturally to humans. “With all the threats to life around us, homo sapiens made it as a species on a hostile planet; survival is deeply engrained,” says Dr Helgo Schomer, a crisis and trauma specialist at Dr Schomer and Associates. “The drive in humans to survive is powerful. It’s not called ‘survival instinct’ for nothing.”
Hope and despair
Archibald’s strength was rapidly evaporating as the rain continued to fall on him. The deceptively swift current was moving at 2.5 knots, and would end up sweeping his tired body for 72km.
He wondered when his friends would turn the Naga Laut around. “The best-case scenario, somebody wakes up at 7am and realises I’m not on board and they’ll be back in about nine hours. Worst-case scenario, 14 hours.”
But it was only at 10 o’clock that his friends realised he wasn’t on board.
As hours wiled away in the Mentawai Strait, Archibald’s boundaries of logic began to dissipate. Throughout the ordeal, he drifted manically through tides of madness and logic. “The highs and lows just horrific,” he says.
Twelve hours after he fell overboard, Brett saw a shimmering fleck that morphed into a boat on its one-hour journey towards him. He saw it was the Naga Laut and he felt an immeasurable lightness of relief. “I thought, ‘I’ve hung in here, all my structures have worked.’”
It stopped 200m away from him. “I was screaming but the current was taking me the other way.”
“They were so close to me,” says Archibald. “The next minute the boat started up and they were on their way.”
Brett fell apart. “I couldn’t believe I’d hung in for 12 hours. The boat was a hair’s breath away from me. ”
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Tony Eltherington’s spirits were desperately low. Earlier that day he’d been told that his best friend had died, and he was due to miss the memorial service in Australia. The 57-year-old Australian surfing legend – who after quitting school at 16 and travelling to Bali as a stowaway, pioneered countless coveted surfspots along the archipelago in the 70s – runs a surf charter boat in the Mentawais. He’d anchored in the town of Tua Paget when he’d heard about Brett, and believed that rescuing him would honour his friend’s life. “Come on!” he yelled at his crew. “There’s a man out there dying! Let’s f**king go!”
As evening descended on Indonesia, Archibald began to experience hallucinations. He saw a pillar of white water spouting skywards, and within it he saw the Virgin Mary. “I thought I was going to die and she’s going to take me – I felt an incredible sense of peace.”
He heard a distant clanging sound and noticed a red buoy with a yellow light and a bell on it. He swam towards it, hoping he could climb aboard. When he reached it, it vanished. “It was all a hallucination. I just completely cracked again.”
“Hallucinations are common in situations of extreme deprivation and duress when a lack of appropriate nutrients cannot be provided,” says Schomer. In Archibald’s case, Schomer points out that his lack of water, food and sleep was compounded by exposure to the sun and the sea, which caused these vivid delusions.
Several hours later, something punched him in his back. He ducked underwater to see a shark darting straight at him.
He watched it smash into him again. “I remember looking in its eyes and thinking, This oke is gonna snap me. Looking into its eyes may have saved him. Weeks later, Archibald spoke to shark expert Joe Kennedy who has spent years filming sharks in False Bay. “He said the best thing I ever did was to stare down the shark because they don’t like that.” Kennedy said the shark nudged him to feel his texture, and to see if he was worth eating. “He was coming back the third time,” says Archibald. “Then it looked at me, and with a flick of his tail he was gone.”
Archibald noticed the fin, and realised it was a black tip reef shark. “I thought, There’s got to be a reef nearby.”
“My brain switched gear again,” he says. “That’s the power of positive thought.”
But the buoyant promise of land was replaced by the heavy reality of loneliness. “I remember the sense of desolation.” The meeting of shark and potential snack was the first encounter Archibald that had with a living, thinking being since he fell overboard. “It was a relationship,” he says. “Suddenly I was on my own again.”
Drifting into night
As the grey clouds darkened, he felt a jab on the back of his head. He turned and saw a seagull darting at his face. “The next minute another one whacked me on the side – it was going for my eye.” While fending off two seagulls swooping at his eyes and ears, Archibald realised that seagulls don’t roost in the ocean, and he couldn’t be far from land.
When the seagulls left, the day dissolved into darkness and he realised he needed to survive a night in a sea that was too choppy for fishing boats. Up until now, Eltherington’s crew had been scouring the sea in the storm. “They were as bad as could be: 30 to 40 knots wind with rain and low cloud. The visibility was deplorable.”
The chances of finding Archibald grew slimmer. “As night fell, it was 50/50 on Brett surviving,” says Eltheridge. The frothing sea forced Eltherington to turn his boat, the Barrenjoey, towards shelter.
Archibald was dragging his strokes in the swelling blackness of the Mentawai Strait at night when he felt a shock on his arm. He was in the midst of an armada of phosphorescent jellyfish suspended in the dark waters. “They were everywhere I could see. It was so beautiful.”
Once again, he prepared for death. “I thought: I’m gonna be stung by these, and I’ll sink to the bottom.” The current steadily sucked his resigned body through the poisonous, luminous vortex. “I howled and screamed, and suddenly I was out,” he says. Afterwards, Noakes explained to him that the shocks would have dramatically boosted his adrenalin levels. Now, with another challenge down, Archibald found himself on another ascent on his bipolar journey of survival. “Again, I thought: I can do this, and I started swimming.”
Archibald recalls a dugout canoe paddled by two Indonesian boys coming towards him. He raised his hand to heave himself onto it but there was nothing there. The boat was a figment of the imagination of a man delirious from dehydration in a world of undrinkable water.
The sadistic visions continued to hurl Archibald between hope and despair. Later that night, he was visited by a vivid aberration of a 17th century ship. He remembers a man standing on the deck, shouting, “You can make it!” He heard the clatter of a rope ladder’s wooden slats as the man threw it to him. He swam up to grab it. Archibald reached for the ladder and the ship vanished instantly.
That night, Eltherington couldn’t sleep. He chain-smoked Malboro Reds and stared at his maps while the rain rattled on his roof. He thought about his best friend’s passing and the possibility of Archibald surviving the night. He decided to radio four charter boats and assigned different sections of the sea for them to search. At 4am, his crew hauled the anchor of the Barrenjoey on deck and he aimed the boat’s bow towards the heart of the vast, murky strait.
Archibald had spent so much energy chasing a phantom ship that he hadn’t noticed the distant lights glistening on the horizon. When he saw them, he realised they were the lights of villages in a distant jungle and – for the first time – he had a target to aim for. “I knew I could get there. I didn’t care if it took me the whole night or the whole next day.”
Eltherington had a nagging hunch that Archibald might be in a completely different place. “It was instinct, and lots of praying to my angels and fallen brothers,” he says. Eltherington threw coconuts overboard and watched them bob in the sea, and noticed that they were being pulled northwards instead of south as the current had been known to drag them. “F**k it, I’m going north,” he said, and altered his course by 18 degrees.
Archibald was frantically swimming towards the lights of dry land, when he saw a boat coming towards him. As it came closer he recognised it: the Naga Laut. He saw his friends leaning over the side, shouting, “Archie! You can make it!” He swam towards it, yelling, “Thanks, boys! You saved me!” And then it vapourised in front him. He’d been cursed with another heartbreaking hallucination.
The momentum of lunging at a boat that didn’t exist plunged him beneath the surface. When he rose for air, he saw the glow of dawn. “I couldn’t believe I’d made it through the night.“ His tongue had been chewed by the uncontrollable chattering of his teeth.
In the mirage-smeared distance he saw land. “It was still far away but I thought, Screw that, I can swim there.”
Then a boat appeared. He’d encountered four boats already: one didn’t see him and three weren’t real. It moored about 500m in front of him. He knew he had to swim quickly. As he sucked a deep breath into his lungs, the boat’s engine spluttered into life and sailed away.
“I completely melted down,” he says. He decided to kill himself. He sucked in as much water he could. It warmed his insides and flowed into his gut. The pain from the saltwater streaming over his gnawed tongue brought reason to his suicidal urges. “My brain was going, ‘What are you doing?’, and I came out the water like a jet-propelled engine.”
He floundered on the surface, vomiting the hot water from his waterlogged lungs. He saw a black cross drifting in the horizon – another macabre hallucination.
As it neared him, he realised the black cross was a mast of a boat. “I didn’t get excited – my brain was so fried. This boat is going to sail away, I thought, and I’m not going to be able to cope with it.”
But the boat kept coming.
The boat was the Barrenjoey, skippered by the sleepless surf cowboy Eltherington. He hadn’t seen Archibald but felt an inexplicable urge to alter his course. He veered the vessel one degree to starboard. Brett noticed the boat turn. “I said, ‘I’m gonna put my head down and swim. I’m gonna count to a 1 000. If they carry on at that speed and I swim as hard as I can, we’re going to intercept.’”
He buried his head in the water and started counting his strokes. “I felt like I was swimming like a dolphin. My arms felt perfect and I was going fast. I remember counting, ‘999, 1 000…’ and I lifted my head up and saw the boat was coming straight at me.”
One of the crew members was sitting on the bulkhead with his legs dangling over the edge. His head was drooping in a despondent slump. He heard a scream above the spluttering of the boat’s engine, and lifted his head.
Archibald saw his head move. “I knew he heard me, and I just started going beserk but he still couldn’t see me.”
He stood up and scanned the water.
Then he saw Brett.
“I heard a roar go up from the boat,” says Brett. He launched into the air and waved his arms wildly. “They reckoned the only thing in the water was my ankles. They had two professional lifeguards on board, and they dived in and came at me like torpedoes.”
“He was overwhelmed with gratitude and relief,” says Eltherington.
“I’ll never forget the oke putting his arms around me, saying, ‘We got you, mate. We got you’,” says Archibald. If Eltherington hadn’t steered the boat when he did, they would never have collided, Archibald says.
He was in a critical state. Noakes reckons he would have had between 10 minutes to an hour of life left in him. His blood pressure measured 64 over 48. “You would have passed out and slipped into unconsciousness,” Noakes told him. Fortunately, Archibald’s well overdue luck continued; amongst the surfers onboard, there was a urologist, a physiotherapist and a chiropractor. They had the water drained from his lungs and put him on a drip.
Staring down demons
After reuniting with his friends on the Naga Laut, Archibald decided to stay on and finish the surf trip. “I had to get my head straight,” he says. This decision, Schomer explains, was a very personal choice. Go with your instinct, he advises. “You need to do that which gets you to attend to your priorities to make sense of it all.”
Archibald also needed to confront his latest phobia: the ocean. The next morning, he waxed his board and threw it off the boat, knowing that he would have to immerse himself in the strait that nearly swallowed him. He dived through the air and felt the sickly familiarity of the warm water around him, filling his nose and mouth. “My brain was going, ‘Get out! Get out!’”
“I remember just curling myself in a ball and saying, ‘You have to stay here because if you don’t, you’ll never get back in the ocean. You have to get through this.’ And I just stayed in this ball and it felt terrible. My brain said, ‘Get in the boat!’ and I kept saying, ‘You can’t!’”
Archibald surfed that morning, and still does today.
Choose to live
Noakes explained to Archibald that his mind kept him alive. “He told me my brain said: ‘You’ve got two choices: live or die. When I was in the water I said: ‘Brett, you have to fight for your laaities – they can’t grow up without a dad.’”
Archibald had found himself in testing times before. He’d had four severe car accidents and snapped both his Achilles tendons. He’d been smashed off his motorbike and broke his neck in 1996. “Life’s been hard but I’m still here – I’m alive. When I broke my neck I should have been dead. I should have been dead now.”
“You chose to live and it didn’t matter what you had to do – your mind was driving your body to live,” said Noakes.
Eltherington sums up Archibald best: “He’s a tough f**ker.”
The 28 hours he spent in saltwater taught Archibald about the reslience of the mind. “We don’t realise how powerful the will to survive is,” he says. “We want to be here. And if we want to be here, we must take the good out of life. I don’t stress about the stuff that bogged me down before. Life’s tough because we chose for it to be tough.”
Many people ask Archibald what went through his mind while he was in the ocean. “I thought about my mates and my family, songs, God. I never once thought about my bank balance and how many cars I have in the garage.”
“My story is about family, friends and faith, and those are the most important things in life,” he says. His newfound perspective is a product of meteorological coincidences, navigator’s hunches, stretched faith and an unrelenting spirit of survival. “I can’t have another bad day,” he says. “Because I came so close to never having another day.”
– Ian McNaught Davis