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Lost at Sea | The Brett Archibald story

by Ingrid Hale

It started with an email, a tantalising invitation to surf the world’s best waves in a magnificent tropical paradise. Brett Archibald couldn’t resist. In April 2013 the Cape Town businessman jetted off to Indonesia to join eight of his closest friends for a dream surf safari. Within hours of boarding their chartered boat, they sailed into a storm and so began Brett’s nightmare ordeal – seasick and vomiting over the side of the vessel in the middle of the night, he fell overboard. And worst of all: nobody saw what had happened to him.

In this riveting extract from his book, Alone – the Search for Brett Archibald, the gutsy South African reveals how for 28-and-a-half hours he had to battle sharks, jellyfish, bloodthirsty seagulls and his own mental demons as he tried to swim for land, hoping and praying that a passing ship would spot him. This is his story.

How it All Happened

From the shelter of the upper deck, I stumble out to the port railing of the Naga Laut and into the full brunt of the storm. The sea is heaving. A surge of coke and bile rockets up my throat and I spew it out over the side, only for the wind to toss it back in my face. I’ve barely wiped my mouth when another projectile fires up through my diaphragm and I lurch over the side once more.

My head is pounding, my stomach a corkscrew of pain. I vomit a third time. I feel dizzy looking down at the white water churning beneath me. Then there is an explosion in my skull, as if an electric current has run up from the base of my spine and clouted me on the back of my head.

My last conscious thought is, if I vomit like that again, I’m going to pass out. And that’s what happens.

Next thing I know I’m in the ocean, fully awake and alert. The wind is howling and the surf boiling around me. The Naga Laut is moving slowly away from me.

“Hey!” I scream. My throat is thick, as though I’ve swallowed a tennis ball. I shout again. And again. But the sound is stolen away by the waves and the wind and the rain. Deep down I know calling for help is futile. No-one has seen me fall overboard.

“I’m going to die out here,’ I say to no-one in particular. Yet I feel no fear, only an overwhelming sadness that I’m never going to see my beautiful wife and children again.

The First 24 Hours

3.30AM TO 4.30AM
I’m taking in too much water. It has caused me to vomit as vehemently as I did off the side of the boat; wracking, stomach-heaving retches. What an unglamorous way to die, I think.

4.30AM TO 5.30AM
I decide to swim in what I hope is the direction the boat has taken. But after a while I begin to feel really tired – my arms are heavy and my legs stiff. I’m not swimming particularly hard, but it’s sapping my energy. I fumble in my pocket and edge out the small purple folder. I’d discovered it earlier – in it is a credit card slip and the hotel room key from my stay in Jakarta. I tear a tiny corner off of its edge and put it into the water. It sweeps away from me at speed. That’s why I’m so tired! For nearly four hours I’ve been swimming against the current. The only thing to do is to turn around and go with it.

8.30AM TO 9.30AM
An immobilising pain simultaneously crushes both my legs. Cramp. I sink like a stone.

9.30AM TO 10.30AM
I breach inelegantly and splutter and cough as I slap my open hands onto the surface. The fizzing salt water that I retch whirls around my chin. My lungs are on fire and my throat feels stripped of flesh.

10.30AM TO 11.30AM
When we moved back to Cape Town, Anita had wanted to take furniture out of storage to put into our house. She’d wanted to make it liveable, happy, a home. But with the renovation looming, I kept her from doing it. ‘What’s the point? It’s going to be demolished soon.’ So for two years we’d lived in a stark, cold shell. The curtains remained packed away. We hadn’t even unpacked the dishwasher. So we washed dishes by hand for two years and hated it – all because I needed to keep everything in neat little boxes. These mundanities are suddenly very upsetting to me. Anita, Zara, Jamie, if I survive this, I’m going to be different.

11.30AM TO 12.30PM
I’ve been going for around ten hours now, I calculate. My Comrades run took eight hours; the cycle races between six and eight. This is uncharted territory. I look down at my chest and arms beneath the water’s surface. My skin is changing colour. It’s chalky and has started to wrinkle like crêpe paper. I splay my fingers; they’re swollen and shrivelled and my wedding ring is beginning to get lost in folds of what looks like old decaying flesh. ‘Dead man’s hands,’ I say aloud.

2.30PM TO 3.30PM
A menacing storm approaches steadily from the horizon. I lift my head; my only focus is to get liquid into my body. Enormous drops fall from the heavens; they look like great silver coins raining down. I try to count the drops that land on my tongue. Then, through a momentary break in the water, I see it. About 300 metres away, through a shroud of rain. It’s the Naga Laut.

3.30PM TO 4.30PM
Relief floods over me. They’ve come back! We’ll be drinking beers tonight and surfing tomorrow. All of this will have been a bad dream. It begins to rain harder again. I stop swimming and continue to tread water as I watch the boat approaching – they’re heading straight for me. Suddenly the boat stops. I calculate that it’s about 150 to 200 metres away from me. I start screaming, hollering as loud as my voice can carry.

A minute later, the boat turns. I can just make out Niall Hegarty, his frame smaller beside Banger (Benoit Maingard), a giant of a man. Ridgy (Mark Ridgway) is in the stern shouting, gesticulating wildly. Then I see Niall’s head fall to his chest and Banger fold his arms. And I know. My friends haven’t seen me. I put my head down and swim like a crazed man towards the boat. I swim freestyle as hard as I can for what feels like 10 minutes, then look up and realise I haven’t moved at all. The boat powers up. Stunned, I watch it sail away. Despair hits with full force. As strong as the knowledge had been that death was inevitable when I first fell overboard, this is a thousand times more powerful, more certain. I know I cannot carry on.

5.30PM TO 6.30PM
Suddenly, a sharp pain shoots through the top of my right arm, followed by hundreds of needle-like stings. They feel like mini explosions all over my body. I look down into clearer water to see that I’m surrounded by tiny Portuguese men o’ war. I’ve swum into a swarm of sinister stinging fire strings and they’re everywhere. Stung, but not dead. I’m even a little disappointed. Why didn’t the volley of little shocks stop my heart? Instead adrenaline surges through me. My entire system feels charged. Nature has plugged in and given me a thousand volts. It’s bizarrely restorative.

7.30PM TO 8.30PM
I feel a massive wallop against my back, like a punch, slightly above my left kidney. What the hell was that? I recognise the black edgings of a vertical fin like an ink mark. It’s a blacktip reef shark. I’ve dived in the Maldives, where they’re common. As it continues towards me, a powerful surge rips through my body. My survival instinct, primal and raw, takes over and a truly absurd idea forms. You can take this guy, I tell myself. Try to get him to come at you. As he opens his mouth, move your body out of the way and ram your left arm down his throat. When he slows down, throw your right arm over his tail and hang on. He can take you into shore. I might lose an arm, I reason, but at least I’ll be towed to land. Out of this ocean. Out of this wretched watery wasteland. I’m about to ride a blacktip reef shark to salvation… But in the next moment, it’s gone.

8.30PM TO 9.30PM
Wham! Something hits me on the back of my head. I must have fallen asleep for a second, but the wallop forces me wide awake. I just make out the silhouette of a bird – a seagull. It’s circling above me in the last minutes of light. It keeps coming at me, screeching maliciously as it hovers in the darkness above, its beak like scissors. Then my face feels like it explodes. Distracted, I haven’t seen the second – and larger – bird come from my left. He hits the bridge of my nose; it feels as if it’s been sliced clean off my face. I remember the pain from when I was once head-butted in a bar fight. I lift the skin up off my nose and feel blood trickle down to my lips. But my mind is whirling: seagulls don’t spend the night out at sea. They land and float on water but they don’t sleep at sea. I have to be close to land.

11.30PM TO 12.30PM
Is this a dream? Above the waterline, three lights. I keep staring at them, waiting for them to disappear. I’m near the islands. How far are they? Perhaps 16 kilometres. I’d swum the popular Midmar Mile dam race in KwaZulu-Natal in my younger days. You can swim there, I instruct myself. If you start now, you can get there by daybreak. I pick the middle light as my destination and start swimming breaststroke towards it.

Heading into Day 2

12.30AM TO 1.30AM
I attempt to lift my head once again to see the lights. They’re still there – like sirens calling. Land is within my sights but I don’t have the physical ability to get there. The realisation is shattering. I’m freezing. Numb all over. My teeth are chattering and I can feel chunks of my tongue coming off in my mouth. Could I bite it right off? Like in a seizure, unable to control my own body. I spit the pieces out into my hand and look down at them.

4.30AM TO 5.30AM
The sun has risen, the night is over. At last. Then, a speck in the distance. Moored between the islands. It’s unmistakable: a boat.

5.30AM TO 6.30AM
I’m too afraid to close my eyes, terrified that I’ll lose sight of the fishing boat. I swim, very slowly, for what feels like 45 minutes. Then the sound of an engine starting up. The fishing boat turns sideways against the horizon, its outline clear against the dawn sky. It’s maybe a hundred metres away. It sets its course going east – away from me – and starts to move off. I watch in mute horror. That boat was my last chance. ‘F*ck it. God, take me, I am done!’ I’m close to hypothermic. Drowning myself will be a release, and I make the conscious decision to do it. I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with the salt water that has crashed against and beaten me since it ensnared me. It’s not painful. I breathe out and warm liquid streams from my nose and mouth. I keep looking at the light above. I breathe in another lungful of salt water. Suddenly an agonising pain burns around my tongue, as if a torturer is cutting it from my mouth with a dull knife. The salt in the water is cauterising every open wound. I try a third time. Then a fourth time, but the pain around my tongue is intolerable. Black spots dance before my eyes. ‘What the f*ck do you think you’re doing?’ The mental scream is a sound I’ve never heard before. I kick up through two metres of water and burst through onto the surface like a champagne cork.  As I cough up salt water, I detect the faint metallic taste of blood. I stretch out my arms and try to scull. Try to keep my head up. Then. Floating above the water, I see it. A black cross.

The Rescue

6.45AM TO 7.15AM
It’s still there. The black cross. Is it the angel of death? God coming to get me? Mustering my last strength, I tread water. My heart is hammering against my ribcage as I watch it get bigger. And bigger still. A crucifix. God’s sign. I suddenly realise it is the mast top and spreader of a yacht – I can see its rigging now. And it’s coming my way. There’s activity on deck. The men look like ants. After a few minutes, she turns away from me – just slightly to starboard. ‘NO NO NO!’ I scream. It can’t happen again. I do a quick mental calculation: the yacht is about 300 metres away. Three-hundred strokes, baby. That’s all I need.

This is it, Brett, your last stab. I put my head down and I swim. I count with my head down: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten… When I get to three hundred I stop. I look up. The boat is coming straight at me, only a hundred metres away. ‘Hey! Hey!’ My voice has left me. ‘Here, over here!’ My words come out weak, pathetic, but I’ve never felt more determined to be heard. I give it everything my lungs and throat have got. I don’t stop screaming. I can now see the entire hull of the boat. In the full glory of the early morning sun, she’s aglow, as if on fire. I give one last final scream and propel myself out of the water as high as I can, using my last traces of energy. I hear yelling from the foredeck. The boat veers directly towards me. I see a man in the prow of the boat jump up and gesticulate, arms waving. The shapes of men running; someone tearing off a T-shirt; a splash as someone dives into the water. I see a life ring thrown from the rail and more bodies diving over the side. I feel the relief spread through me like a warm glow yet my last swimming effort has drained me of all my faculties. I realise I have nothing left in me to even stay afloat. I start sinking down, ruefully aware that I am going to drown before they get to me. So close. So damn close… And then an arm comes up beneath my ribs and moves across my chest. Someone has me. I feel his strength in an instant. For a moment, I’m too afraid to let go. Then I hear him. His words are a little breathless. ‘We’ve got you, mate. We’ve got you.’


Brett was rescued at 7.15am by the Australian crew of the Barrenjoey on 18 April 2013. He had drifted approximately 50 nautical miles, more than 70 kilometres, in the open water of the Mentawai Strait for more than 28 hours – and lived to tell the tale.

*This is an edited extract from Alone – The Search for Brett Archibald, published by Mercury.

Compiled by Debbie Hathway.

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