Alone: Lost Overboard in the Indian Ocean by Brett Archibald is an autobiographical narrative about surviving 28 hours in the sea alone (available November 7, 2017).
In April 2013, 50-year-old Brett Archibald was on board a surf-charter boat, making a night-time crossing of the remote Mentawai Strait off Sumatra, Indonesia. In the middle of a storm, ill with severe food poisoning, he blacked out. When he came to, he found himself in the raging sea, 60 miles from shore. As Brett saw the lights of his boat disappearing into the darkness, it became clear that no one had seen him fall, and that no one would hear his shouts for help. He was alone in the ocean.
It would be eight hours before his friends realized he was missing. At that point, a frantic search began for a single man somewhere in thousands of square miles of heaving waves. The rough weather meant that no planes or helicopters could assist in the search. According to the experts, he should have died within 10 to 14 hours.
Instead, Brett battled Portuguese man o' war and jellyfish, sharks, seagulls, and the stormy seas for more than 28 hours. Alone is the remarkable tale of his miraculous survival and rescue. It is also the story of what it takes to defy extraordinary odds and the incredible power of the human spirit.
WEDNESDAY, 17 APRIL 2013
THE NAGA LAUT
TUA PEJAT HARBOUR, NORTH SIPURA
Brett’s not on the boat.
The thought doesn’t hit Jean-Marc with sledgehammer force. It unfolds itself slowly, bringing a strange, spreading disquiet and the feeling of his insides being hollowed out. For a moment he thinks he might be sick. Still, he doesn’t say anything. He has to be sure.
From where he’s sitting, he can see down the passage that leads into the ‘dungeon’, the gloomy porthole-less cabin beneath the prow of the boat that he’s sharing with his friend of forty-two years, Brett Archibald. He knows that Brett isn’t down there.
JM pushes the surf magazine he’s been reading a few centimetres forward and quietly gets up from the galley table. Weyne and Craig, first-timers on a surf trip like this, are bent over the coffee machine trying to figure out how it works. Tony and the two Marks sit around the end of the table, stirring coffee and pouring cereal into their bowls.
Conversation is subdued after the rough overnight crossing.
JM unfurls his six-foot frame and walks through the boat’s dining area, ducking out onto the Naga Laut’s lower deck. He takes a deep breath to suppress a brewing sense of panic and looks up to the sky. It’s clogged with heavy bruise-like clouds. The wind, although weakened, still swirls in gusts about the boat.
He scans the jungle outline of the island about 150 metres away, but can barely make out its scruffy palm trees poking out of the thick vegetation. They look like giant upturned bottlebrushes through the thin veil of rain. In the dullness of the morning the island looks gloomy and inhospitable.
JM crosses his arms against the uncharacteristic cold.
Last night was no sumatra, the local name given to the flash storms that sweep through these tropics. This weather has set in. The strength of the night’s ill temper has eased somewhat, but the storm’s prolonged tail will take all day to run its course. Rain continues to fall and the boat is pitching beneath him, despite its protected anchorage in the small bay spread out before the few ramshackle buildings that make up the harbour of Tua Pejat.
It was an awful night, the crossing from Padang ferocious. The storm, the worst JM has seen on his many trips to Indonesia, savaged the boat and left four of the nine friends spending much of the night vomiting – a combination of seasickness, jet lag and suspected food poisoning. The Bintangs they’d had at a roadside bar in Padang probably hadn’t helped either.
It isn’t a promising start to their talked-up surf trip: their way of celebrating Weyne’s fiftieth and, hell, a bloody fine excuse to surf some of the planet’s most unbelievable breaks.
A few almost hadn’t made the trip. All successful businessmen, they’d had to convince their colleagues and their consciences that there would never be a better time to do something like this, something totally indulgent and personally thrilling. For ten days, all of them would be almost entirely uncontactable.
It’s around 8am, JM guesses. He’d packed for the trip in haste and had forgotten his wristwatch. He looks down at the pale tan mark on his left wrist and frowns.
It’s the absence of a single voice that unsettles him.
Brett, whom he’s known since they were Cubs, then Scouts, at school, is a conspicuous presence. On the boat. In a room. In life.
He’s a man known for his contagious enthusiasm for everything. Boundlessly energetic, Brett is a big personality. Loud, easy-going, good-natured, but with a reputation as a non-conformist and a risk-taker in both his personal and professional life. It’s won him adoration and enmity in equal measure.
In younger, wilder days, Brett was notable, even admired, for his high-spirited misbehaviour. His madcap adventures are legendary, even if he’s had a hand in making them so.
Brett’s talent as a raconteur is well known to his friends. His playfully embroidered storytelling, nicknaming everyone and everything, and frequently dipping into a vast library of jokes, means it’s impossible for him to go unnoticed for long.
This morning, no-one has heard the human hurricane that is ‘the Arch’.
The silence is unsettling.
Brett had been ill during the night, but even that, JM knew, would not keep him down for long.
JM wipes the raindrops from his face and tentatively climbs the stainless-steel ladder to the upper deck; its steps are slick under foot. As the rain comes down in a fine mist, he looks around the open area on top.
No sign of Brett.
He checks the starboard and port sides of the boat and walks through the swirling drizzle up to the front. Nothing.
‘He’s not up there. He must be in your cabin,’ Tony said when JM casually asked after their friend half an hour ago. Tony had gone up on deck as soon as he’d woken to prep his board for their first day’s surf.
Weyne had joined him up there. ‘Shit, what happened to paradise?’ Weyne had said on seeing the weather.
Tony Singleton, owner of a Durban-based awning company and the trip organiser, is an eight-time veteran of these Indonesian surf charters. ‘Things change very quickly here,’ he’d replied. ‘In fifteen minutes, things could swing around and we could have waves.’
That didn’t seem likely now.
The cabin, JM knows, is empty. He’d left it two hours ago and the bunk, though unmade, had not been slept in.
I must have missed him, JM thinks. Perhaps he went to the toilet and is back there now. Or maybe he moved to the spare bunk in one of the other cabins, and I’ve just forgotten which one it is.
The dungeon, with the anchor winch just above taking up valuable headspace, and with its proximity to the engine room’s diesel fumes, is the worst place to be on the boat if you’re seasick.
JM returns to the galley and makes his way back past the others, who, apart from Banger and Niall, are now all up and talking in hushed voices. Banger and Niall were also violently ill through the night.
JM turns on the dungeon’s lights. They crackle and buzz into action. The ceiling is so low a man can hardly stand upright, so JM crawls on his hands and knees to Brett’s bunk and again he lifts the crumpled duvet in case he’s missed his friend creeping back there at some point.
He throws the pillow across the cabin.
Brett’s half-open bag, now the only hint of his presence, has not moved from the end of the bunk. JM noticed it earlier when, as the first one awake, he’d pulled on his boardshorts and a T-shirt in the dim light of his headlamp. His roommate, he presumed, had slept on deck.
The friends had bunked together on previous trips, and since they were both light sleepers Brett often chose to sleep under the stars, especially on hot nights. With Brett moving up and down being sick in the night, JM assumed he’d finally fallen asleep on one of the benches upstairs.
JM climbs the two or three steps to the other cabins and moves slowly backwards through the narrow passage, looking into the two smaller adjacent cabins – one where Weyne is bunking alone and the other where Tony is sharing with Snowman. They’re both empty.
He then moves back to glance in on Niall, alone in his cabin and still curled up facing the wall. Opposite, Banger is on the top bunk, the duvet over his head.
Perhaps he’s back in the loo, thinks JM. He checks the heads, one on each side of the passage. Both were very busy during the night.
This isn’t good. Dread is beginning to rise. There is nowhere else on the boat that Brett could be.
‘Hey, has anyone seen Brett this morning?’
It feels like a freight train is running through JM’s chest as he comes back through to the galley.
The eyes that meet his are expressionless.
‘He was radically sick last night,’ Ridgy remarks, ‘he must be sleeping.’
‘He’s not in our cabin.’ JM’s voice sounds like it’s been roughly cut.
‘He was on the top deck last night. Did you check upstairs?’
JM suddenly thinks of one last place. He walks briskly through the galley again and clambers up the ladder to the bridge. He hasn’t checked the crews’ bunks behind the skipper’s wheel. Perhaps Brett just bundled into the nearest refuge at some point. Ridgy follows him.
Yanto, the only English-speaking member of the Indonesian crew and the all-round fixer on the surf charter, is chuckling with the captain, an older man whom Brett had immediately christened ‘Skippy’ after they’d boarded. The crew has remained awake all night to coax the Naga Laut through the stormy 12-hour crossing.
Yanto watches curiously as the two men glance around the cabin, ducking their heads between the bunks. Hums and grunts are coming from the engine room beneath.
‘Yanto, have you seen Brett?’ JM’s question is urgent, even a little impatient, a signal of his growing apprehension. ‘The loud one with no hair?’
Since the guests had arrived only the day before, name identification isn’t reliable.
‘He was sick in the night on deck, Mr Jimmy,’ Yanto offers.
‘Yes, we know,’ Ridgy says, ‘but did he sleep here last night?’
‘No. He’s not in his cabin?’
‘No,’ says JM. ‘I’ve already searched everywhere and Brett is not on board.’
Yanto freezes. All the blood drains instantly from his face. His wide eyes reflect the power of that statement: Brett is not on board.
In an instant, all three men register its enormity. A man is overboard. Now obvious and incontrovertible, they all know it will have momentous consequences. In Indonesia, losing someone at sea means a mandatory jail sentence for a boat’s captain and his first mate.
Yanto, now shaking, starts a panicked discussion in Bahasa, the local language, with Skippy.
‘Okay, we’ve got a big problem.’ JM keeps his composure. ‘This is what we are going to do. Yanto, get your crew to the back of the boat. All of them. I will round up our guys and we’ll all search the boat again. Brett could have slipped in the storm, he could have fallen somewhere, hurt his ankle. We have to search the boat. Otherwise he’s overboard.’ He’s working hard to stay controlled.
Ridgy turns to make his way to the lower deck. He meets Tony at the ladder. ‘Listen, we think Brett’s off the boat.’
A chill runs up Tony’s spine. ‘What do you mean “off the boat”?’
‘We can’t find him.’
Tony looks up blankly as he assesses the impact of the words.
The change in mood runs through the boat like a powder fuse.
‘What? Where’s Brett?’ Banger, a tall burly man, leaps from his bunk.
Niall, too, quickly joins the others. ‘What’s going on? Brett’s gone?’
Still a little disorientated and detached, the men all look at one another, unable to believe what they’re hearing. Dismay, then disbelief settles upon all of them.
JM comes through the door. ‘Guys, I need you all at the back of the boat. Now, please.’
Someone laughs nervously. After all, this has the hallmark of one of Brett’s adolescent stunts.
‘No, seriously,’ JM says. ‘I’ve been looking for Brett. He should’ve been up and he’s nowhere to be found. I’ve checked and rechecked all the cabins. He’s not here.’
The relaxed air has been obliterated, and after a momentary stock-take of the situation at the back of the boat, everyone sets into action. The men move off in all directions to begin the search.
‘Count the surfboards,’ Craig Killeen suggests. ‘Perhaps he got up really early and paddled to the beach?’ Despite the rain the water is relatively flat.
Tony and Ridgy move to the stacked boards. They’re all there.
‘He could have got cold last night on deck and slept in one of the board bags?’ says Snowman. This is common practice on surf trips. The covers are duly pulled out from under the benches but again the men draw a blank.
Craig and Weyne head down to inspect the cabins yet again. ‘I swapped cabins with Brett and JM when we came aboard. He could have been disorientated and gone to the wrong cabin,’ says Weyne. He sounds bewildered.
‘I’ve checked them all,’ JM insists.
‘Maybe he went down to the engine room, it’s warm there,’ Banger offers. But Yanto’s ashen face as he walks up from the bowels of the mono-hull dispels that hope.
Dazed, the men move around the boat. A sense of unreality hangs like a thick fog. These circumstances, each man knows, are far from normal.
‘How ridiculous,’ Craig mutters to himself as he looks in the galley’s kitchen cupboards.
‘I know, how bloody stupid! He’s not going to be in here.’ Weyne closes a drawer.
Shock, confusion and disorientation at searching an unfamiliar, three-storey boat seeps like fast-rising damp through the group. It surely couldn’t have been Brett’s carelessness that caused him to go overboard. He has his skipper’s licence and is an experienced seaman.
‘He could have had a heart attack and hit his head as he fell over and went into the water unconscious.’ Niall’s speculation ratchets up new concerns.
‘I’ll check the railings for blood.’ JM climbs up the ladder to the upper deck. ‘Or damage to the rails.’
‘I’ll check the tender. Jesus, if that hit him in the water…’ Ridgy doesn’t want to complete the sentence. The tender had been let out about twenty metres behind the Naga Laut before the crossing, to prevent it from being smashed against the boat during the storm.
‘I reckon he was vomiting so badly over the side that he became exhausted, and with the rocking and rolling of the boat he must’ve lost his footing. The deck is as slippery as hell up there.’ Banger climbs the ladder after JM.
After fifteen minutes the eight friends regroup at the stern of the boat and for a few moments stare at one another in silence.
The terrible truth descends. It feels like a bubble burst-ing.
‘What the fuck! What now?’ Tony whispers.
‘We have to go back for him.’ Ridgy utters what they all know in their hearts. ‘We have to find him.’
It’s a major undertaking – they all know that intuitively – but no-one questions that it has to be done.
By contrast, the Indonesian crew, scrambling up and down the decks, are frantic. Yanto is speaking quickly and hysterically with the captain, the engineer and deckhands.
‘Calm down, Yanto,’ says Ridgy, taking him by the shoulders. ‘We have to stay calm.’
‘They’re going to put captain and me in jail, Mr Jimmy. Fifteen years. I have wife. Little girl of three.’ He’s in great distress. ‘Captain go now to harbour master to report that Mr Brett is overboard.’
‘You can’t go now!’ shouts JM. ‘We have to go back out there as quickly as we can.’
Yanto interprets this to the captain, who is shouting back. The communication is confused and haphazard, but his fear is palpable. The captain’s resistance needs no translation.
‘People don’t come back from the sea, Mr Jimmy,’ says Yanto shaking his head, tears welling in his eyes.
This infuriates JM.
‘Listen, Yanto, we’ve booked and paid for this boat for ten days. If it takes all ten days we’re going to go back out there and find him!’
‘We have to report it in Tua Pejat!’ Yanto almost shrieks.
‘Okay, slow down. We must follow the rules.’ Ridgy, a credit consultant whose company runs e-toll roads in South Africa, is also a trained pilot and, like some of the others on the Naga Laut, was an officer during his national service days in the South African Defence Force. He’s a decisive man. ‘What’s the protocol? What’s the course of action?’
Yanto and the crew appear overwhelmed, out of their depth. The South Africans realise that they’ll have to gently assume control.
‘Okay,’ JM says to the young man. ‘If we can’t start a search mission until it’s reported, the captain must hit the tinny and get to the Port Authority on the island. We’ll ready the boat and turn it around.’
Orders dispatched, JM starts moving inside, but then he turns back to Yanto.
‘We’ll find him,’ he says firmly. It seems to mollify Yanto temporarily. ‘I promise you, we will find him. He’s swimming out there. He’s swimming.’
Copyright © 2017 Brett Archibald.
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Brett Archibald is an international businessman and entrepreneur. Over the course of 35 years, he has built an impressive global career, which included directorship positions with a worldwide hospitality and travel corporation in Johannesburg, Sydney, Hong Kong, and London. He is currently the chairman of an events and hospitality company, as well as an inspirational speaker on the national and international circuits. He lives in Cape Town with his wife and their two children.