In the middle of a violent, stormy night, South African born Brett Archibald, was faced with two decisions. He could choose to give up, or he could fight. The married father of two fell overboard a surf charter boat without a life-jacket, finding himself alone in the middle of the ocean under a cloak of darkness. He should have died that night but his macabre sense of humour, thoughts of his family and a gut instinct helped save him. For an astonishing 28-and-a-half hours Brett was swimming to save his life in the remote Mentawai Straits in the Indian Ocean. Stung by hoards of bluebottles and jellyfish, attacked by dive-bombing seagulls intent on plucking out his eyes, hit by a curious shark, nibbled on by sea critters and whipped by giant unrelenting waves, Brett endured.
Speaking to the gutsy Capetonian businessman while he was in Joburg for a conference, Brett explains how every man has a little bit of Robinson Crusoe in them – a desire to feel young and impulsive. A desire to head to the ocean and set your soul free. When Brett and ten of his friends had turned 40 they discovered this phenomenal surfing spot with some of the best waves on the planet. They’d been going there every two years and April of 2013 would have marked Brett’s fifth time sailing from the mainland to the Mentawai Islands – a chain of about 70 islands and islets off the western coast of Sumatra in Indonesia – to tackle the glorious waves on his board. The group had flown from their various homes across the Globe to finally end up in a small fishing village called Padang, where they boarded their charter boat named the Naga Laut. The Naga Laut was 100 kms into the 227km crossing between Padang, Sumatra and Sipora Island, Mentawaii when Brett fell overboard.
“Most of us are in our early 50s, we all get along really well and we all share the same passion for adventure,” he says. “We’d often meet up for these amazing surf trips but this time around, from the minute we left, things went wrong.” Brett explains he had almost cancelled his plans to join the group. His business was in the throes of bankruptcy, he was dog-tired and suffering from burn-out, but his wife encouraged him to take a much needed break.
After travelling for close on 54 hours, and just hours after boarding the boat, Brett started experiencing the effects of both sever seasickness and food poisoning and was violently ill. “We’d eaten take-out calzone Pizza for dinner. I remember my mate cutting it open and the meat inside was black like tar and the stench was overpowering. We were all very hungry after such a long journey, so we ate it anyway. I had just gone to bed when we sailed into one of the biggest tropical storms you can imagine. A number of boats had set out that night, most turned back, but we carried on – the skipper was nervous to turn the boat back due to the ferocity of the storm. I woke up at around 01h30 and I was sick to my stomach. I made my way onto the boat’s bridge to chat to the skipper, only to establish that we still had eight or nine hours of this hell to endure before reaching our destination. I began feeling ill once again, went to the railing and started vomiting over the side. The rain was bucketing down and the boat was rocking back and forth. My last conscious thought was, ‘if I vomit like that again I’m going to pass out’. The next thing I was in a dream. I was a kid in a washing machine and I was tumbling in these bubbles and laughing at how good it felt.”
Brett had fallen six metres overboard and was sucked under the boat, tumbling through the propellers. How he didn’t get sliced apart by the blades is a question he still ponders. When he opened his eyes he was in the whitewash of the boat. He screamed for help, waving his arms frantically. He could see the lights of the boat about 30 metres away and tried to swim towards it but the waves kept pulling him under. When he finally came to the surface, Brett knew, at that moment and without a shadow of a doubt, that this was where he was going to die.
“I thought about my family. My wife Anita and my two kids. My daughter was nine at the time and my son was six. I looked at the sky – rain belting down – and started screaming at God. In my mind I remember poignantly thinking that my wife and daughter would be okay but my son, who had faced so many challenges in his baby years, needs his dad. The rain was pounding so hard on my head I took my T -shirt off and wrapped it around it like a turban. There was no shadow of doubt in my mind that my friends would come back for me and I estimated I’d have to tread water for about 14 hours before they would reach me. Little did I know that I’d be in the ocean for more than double that time. ”
He’d thought he’d never make it through the next night but eventually the night morphed into day. Counting, singing songs, having imaginary conversations with friends and family and a string of encouraging hallucinations kept Brett afloat. He says he came close to giving up and drowning at least eight times but every time something made him resurface and take another breath.
“We have a friend who lost her son. When she talks about him the sadness in her eyes is so heartbreaking as she never got full closure on exactly what happened,” says Brett. “I didn’t want the same thing to happen my wife and family so I decided to carve my story onto my body so when they found me they’d have closure. I took my belt off and started carving letters into my skin with the buckle but the pain was too intense so I stopped.”
As the seconds rolled into minutes, and minutes into hours, Brett experienced a number of hallucinations. He saw the Virgin Mary in a plume of rain cloud ,she was made made of meccano set and she was bowed with her hands in prayer. He saw a bright red buoy with a bell on it and a yellow light. To this day he can still hear the virtual bell chime. He even saw two children sitting in a little canoe, a group of long-haired burly sailors who wished him well, some of his closest friends who came to say goodbye and even a phantom ship (the same model of toy ship Brett once built as a child).
During his ordeal Brett also came face to face with other life forms out in the ocean intent on finishing him off but ironically proving to be the very challenges that kept Brett alive. “I had just closed my eyes when something hit me on the back of my head with a force. Two seagulls had encircled me and were dive-bombing, trying to pick pieces of flesh from my face. One hit the bridge of my nose. It felt like I’d been hit across the face with a baseball bat. I think he’d been going for my eyes, but I’d turned my head at the last second. Then, just as quickly as they came, they were gone.”
Drifting along, Brett floated straight into a mass of jellyfish and was stung all over. As he was pulling their tentacles off his body and hearing them plop as he threw them off him – his adrenalin pumping – he regained a second wind to fight. Then, just when Brett thought things couldn’t get worse, he felt a bump to the back of his left kidney. At first, his mind pictured barracuda but when it nudged a second time, Brett knew it was a shark. “I went underwater and opened my eyes and saw it. By that stage I was happy to just let it rip my throat out and end it all. However, I very quickly realised it was a Blacktip reef shark which are not commonly known to prey on humans. As I watched it turn and swim away from me, my mind turned to a new hope. A reef shark wouldn’t have wandered far from its reef, so surely I was close to land?”
Meanwhile, Brett’s friends had realised he was missing and reported it to the Indonesian coastguard. An Australian skipper aboard a boat known as the Barrenjoey, carrying a surf charter of 9 Australian mates aboard had also heard about Brett’s plight and was determined to help find him… and find him they did. Brett was finally found, floating approximately 27 kilometres off the coast of the island of Sipura – he had floated almost 70km from where he had originally fallen overboard. He recounts how he had seen the boat but thought not to get overexcited as odds where it was yet just another hallucination. Just as he had finally accepted that he was going to drown and began to sink, an arm came up underneath his ribs and lifted him out the water.
“I heard a man say: ‘We’ve got you, mate. We’ve got you.’ I cannot describe the feeling. The absolute disbelief. The absolute relief.” The skipper of the Barrenjoey was Tony Eltherington – a 57-year-old Australian surfing legend who runs surf charters in the Mentawais – and a man who was just not going to give up.
Dehydrated and sunburnt Brett was treated onboard the Barrenjoey for low blood pressure, water on the lungs, minor lacerations and shock but unbelievably didn’t suffer any other ailments. Brett has since written a book about the ordeal – Alone: The Search for Brett Archibald. The book has been incredibly well received in South Africa and there are plans to launch the book in both the UK and Australia in the forthcoming months. Despite his ordeal, Brett says the ocean is still his happy place. The day after his rescue he was back on his surfboard to ride the waves.