Based: Cape Town
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.
“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. ”