Surviving a Shipwreck
The wind had dropped the night before, but the sea was still running pretty heavy, especially for a boat like the Lucette. The waves were about head height and in a small boat there was a real risk of going over the side. In the distance a shape in the sea moved towards the yacht.
On board, the Robertson family were 200 miles west of Galapagos and two days into a 40-day leg to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia on their round-the-world voyage. Some of the family were sleeping below deck, having kept watch through the night. The morning coffee was brewing on the stove and the family were settling into their normal daily routine. The events that took place in the next few seconds would change their lives forever.
Douglas Robertson, who was 18 at the time, was in the cockpit with his younger brother Sandy when he saw it: the triangular fin of a killer whale. “I pulled a fishing line in and there was a big squid on the end of it, you know, and I said to my brother ‘There’ll be some big fish around here’,” he recalls. “Because where there’s squid there’s whales.”
And then came the impacts. Three in all, in quick succession. Their 43ft (13m) wooden schooner, was lifted into the air, the occupants thrown off their feet. The crack was so loud it could only mean the keel, a single piece of wood that runs the entire length of the bottom of the boat, 3ft (0.9m) deep and 1ft (0.3m) wide, had snapped.
“I thought we must have gone aground,” says Douglas, who is now 65. “We must have hit the bottom somehow, even though we were in deep sea, because I couldn’t think of another explanation for what happened. I looked down the hatches and said, ‘Dad, are you okay?’ And he was already up to his ankles in water.”
Meanwhile, one of the whales, the biggest of the three, was bleeding into the sea from a wound on its head. What had prompted the animals to attack a ship?
Whales have been known to attack boats, although it happens very rarely. The climactic scene in Moby Dick is based on a true event from 1820 in which a sperm whale rammed and sank an 87ft (26.5m) whaling ship, Essex, in the South Pacific. All 20 crew survived the sinking, but only eight made it back to the US alive after an arduous journey in which they resorted to cannibalism.
Sperm whales fight by ramming each other with their rostrum – the hard front part of their skulls. It might be the case that the sperm whale that sank the Essex mistook the ship for another male. However, it is far more likely that the collision was a freak, random event. Whaling ships would intentionally sail towards sperm whales before launching the smaller whaleboats from which the harpoons were launched. An accidental bump was not unheard of.
Killer whales might also fight like this, but more commonly hunt by teaming up to ram large prey like sharks and whales in their soft abdomen. The much smaller Lucette might have looked like a large whale from below – not out of the question to prey on.
Within moments of the collision, Douglas’s father, Dougal, himself an experienced master mariner, called for his family to abandon ship. He fired up the radio to send an SOS while his wife, Lyn, collected their emergency supplies. “I looked at him,” says Douglas, “and I thought ‘This must be a dream’.” It takes a couple of minutes for the radio to warm up. The Lucette sank before it did.
The boat was equipped with an inflatable life raft and 10ft wooden dinghy, both of which Douglas launched over the side and tied together before he was washed off the deck.
“I was thinking all the time ‘This is how I’m gonna die. I’m going to be eaten by bloody killer whales’,” says Robertson. “And I kept feeling for my legs to see if I still have them because I’ve heard that you don’t feel the bite. You just know you haven’t got legs. I kept feeling and thought, well, at least I’ve still got my legs.”
Robin Williams, a young man the family had picked up and offered a berth in return for work, was sleeping having held watch overnight when the ship began to sink. Rising groggily from the hold, he stepped out onto the inflatable raft. One side dipped under the water and then the whole thing was submerged, floating just beneath the surface, within reach but unusable.
It left the seven people who were on board the yacht – Douglas, his mother, father, two twin brothers, sister and Williams – no choice but to squeeze onto the six-person dinghy, in which they would have to survive being adrift on the ocean.
The Robertsons needed a plan. “Survival time without air is measured in minutes, with temperature deficiency is measured in hours, without fluid is measured in days, and without food is measured in weeks,” says Mike Tipton, a physiologist from the University of Portsmouth who specialises in survival in extreme environments. The Robertsons were fortunate; sinking in the tropics, the temperature of the sea was not low enough to elicit the cold shock responses which cause people to gasp and breathe in water in colder seas.
“All the great survival journeys of any length occur in the tropics,” says Tipton. “If you’re outside of that, you don’t survive long enough to write a book about it.” The first two items on their hierarchy of survival were sorted for now.
One of the factors that contributed so significantly to the Robertsons’ survival in the moments immediately after they sank – their location in the tropics – would also start to become a complication. The heat would make them sweat.
“Survival is in the balance; specifically fluid balance, thermal balance and energy balance,” says Tipton. “You can minimise your fluid requirement by making sure that if you have to do anything you do it in the coldest part of the day, making sure that you have good ventilation, avoiding sweating basically.”
But surrounded by water, it would have been tempting to jump into the sea to cool down. This should be avoided though, warns Tipton, as the skin will become encrusted with salt that can draw moisture away from the skin and start to irritate. However, dipping a hand in the water might be excusable and is probably very effective. “They get very high blood flow when you’re hot,” says Tipton. “And it’s a relatively small surface area against the whole of the body. If your deep body temperature is raised, the body will keep sending blood to your hands and you can lose the same amount of heat through the hands as you can from an ice vest or from an air-conditioned vest.”
Afloat on the open sea but otherwise safe from immediate harm, the Robertsons now had time to plan their rescue. They decided to head north, closer to the equator, into an area known as the doldrums. This band of sea, where the northern and southern trade winds collide, is known for its calm water and little surface winds, which might make it extremely slow to sail through, hence the nickname the area acquired from bored sailors.
But it is exactly because of these conditions that it was appealing to the Robertsons. The lack of surface winds is what makes it an ideal place for survival. The band of sea around the equator might reach 35C for most of the year. Moisture from the surface of the sea rises vertically up in this area – meaning on the surface the wind is still – before cooling and returning to the sea as rain.
The Robertsons knew there was rain there, having sailed through it on their way to the Galapagos. Thunderclouds – 40,000 feet high – would have made it a miserable place to be stuck as a sailor, but as a survivor it could keep you alive.
They made a plan to row to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, store water and then row back to America, carried on a current. They had been sailing on the South Equatorial Current which flows westwards. But between the doldrums and their present location is an eastwards countercurrent which would take them back to the American continent in 72 days, by their calculations. Their route would also take them through the shipping lanes that go to Australia and New Zealand from America, increasing their chances of being picked up.
At 10am on the sixth day, their luck changed. There, not more than three miles away, was a ship. Dougal fired two hand flares and three parachute flares – leaving them one hand flare spare. But the ship never turned towards them. “That was a real sobering moment for all of us,” says Douglas. “We realised that we weren’t here just to get rescued.”
A voyage across the open ocean for this length of time would not be easy, though. They would need food, for a start.
“Everybody who’s ever gone on a diet knows that you’re pretty hungry early on, but with time you don’t feel hungry, and particularly when you’re not doing very much,” says Tipton. In the hierarchy of survival, food ranks low. You can survive for several weeks without eating. But for a 72-day voyage, the Robertsons would eventually need to eat.
Fortunately, there is plenty to eat in the Pacific Ocean. Protein in particular is very easy to come by. The Robertsons caught flying fish and sea turtles, drying the meat in the sun to preserve it. “By [the third week] our clothes had completely rotted away,” says Douglas. “So we were sort of naked, a bit like cavemen. We were catching animals with our hands and our ingenuity.”
But protein is not really what your body is looking for when you are starving and dehydrated. “When proteins denature into amino acids, you’re going to produce byproducts like ammonia and urea that you have to then dilute with fluid,” says Tipton. “Not so with fat and sugar.” Without enough water to drink, the proteinous fish could eventually poison you.
Turtles, however, have a layer of fat under their shells, which is far more useful to your body in a survival situation and can be eaten at any time. Douglas says that the family reduced their diets to a single piece of meat three times and sips of water three or four times each day. Getting enough water was the real challenge, despite being in an ocean of it.
The Robertsons had the foresight to save 18 pints (10.2 litres) of fresh water in cans. But for a 72-day trip, it would not be sufficient. After about 24 hours, if you intentionally deny yourself water, the body switches into water conservation mode. Normally, the human body requires around 1.5 litres of fluid every day, but in survival situations this can be reduced to around 400ml per day, according to Tipton. In a worst-case scenario this could be reduced further, to around 200ml, at which point the body maintains essential kidney function but shuts down many other processes and the blood becomes severely hypertonic.
The hot weather that meant Douglas and other family members survived the initial sinking, however, would now become their enemy.
“If it’s pretty warm then you are going to lose about half a litre of fluid a day, through the skin,” says Tipton. The Robertsons had two other immediate sources of water beyond their meagre canned supplies – rainwater and condensation. With a canopy over the top of the dinghy, sweat and water vapour breathed out by the family would condense on it. “Having a way of collecting that is essentially a way of recycling body fluid.”
What anyone hoping to survive must never do, however, is drink seawater or urine. “Urine is about 4% more concentrated than standard body fluid,” says Tipton. “So, you’d need to be diluting it by an enormous amount. You’re never, ever going to be in that situation in a survival scenario.”
Getting enough drinkable water was quickly becoming an issue for the Robertsons. They had arrived in the doldrums, but there was no rain. For three days they waited, occasionally seeing a raincloud frustratingly out of reach in the distance.
Their solution was to drink the blood of the sea turtles they caught. Douglas recalls it being palatable and not at all salty and it became an important source of fluid for them.
The extremely low levels of water the family were drinking, however, took a toll on their bodies. Douglas remembers only urinating once during their entire ordeal, and when he did it was thick and dark like tar.
When deprived of water in this way, the body starts to do strange things. When they accidentally cut their hands, while handling a turtle for example, the family found they did not bleed. “The body is pretty good at sacrificing the extremities in order to maintain heart, lung and brain function,” says Tipton. “If you dehydrate, you’ll find the peripheral blood flow goes down because the body’s trying to maintain central blood pressure. They didn’t bleed because there’s no blood going there. Maximum vasodilation can be three litres per minute going to the skin, whereas maximum vasoconstriction can be 20ml per minute. You know, it is pretty radical.”
When the extremities lose blood flow in a colder environment it can cause frostbite. In warm environments, it can lead to heatstroke. Without being able to send blood to the skin, the body sacrifices an easy way to cool down.
Concerned by the families lack of excretion, Lyn, who had some medical training, suggested they give themselves enemas using the dirty water in the bottom of the boat and some of the tubing from the inflatable raft in an effort to get things going. The dirty water, a mixture of turtle blood, rainwater and seawater, would have been totally undrinkable. In the colon, very little fluid is absorbed, so as a technique to rehydrate its effects would be limited.
Allegedly, the British SAS are trained to give themselves enemas as a survival technique and the stunt has been repeated by survivalists like Bear Grylls. When I put this to Tipton, he laughs. “I’m sure they’ve tried it, they’ll try anything, but it really isn’t going to have a massive effect.”
The family also started to suck the spinal fluid from fish skeletons and eat fish eyes. Douglas remembered quite liking the experience of popping a fish eye, and the brief relief it brought. The eyes might even have contained a small amount of much needed vitamin C as well as a burst of liquid.
Finally, on their fourth day in the doldrums, it began to rain. “We were so joyous and we drank our fill of water,” says Douglas. “All the meat went bad because of the water but we ate what we could and discarded the rest.” The turtles returned regularly enough for them to have a steady supply of meat, along with their eggs and thirst-quenching blood.
After a while, however, the rain began to be a problem. They were having to constantly bail out the dinghy, taking shifts through the night, eventually collapsing in exhaustion from the efforts. On about 21st day, they spotted the North Star. Douglas says they worked out they must have travelled 420 miles.
On the 23 July 1972, their 38th day adrift, they spotted a second ship. Dougal lit the last flare and held it until it burned his hand. This time, the ship turned.
“Curiously, they asked us if we wanted to be rescued,” says Robertson. They had been spotted by a Japanese fishing boat. “This rope came down and landed on the raft. And that was our first realisation that we were safe.”
The first thing Douglas asked for was coffee: “The idea was fantastic.” But he couldn’t drink it.
“We were very poorly. We didn’t know it, but our haemoglobin count dropped. We should have had blood transfusions, but they put us on a diet of coconut water.”
There are a few recent examples of rescues which show how far our understanding of the damage that extreme survival can do to the body has come: the 12 Thai boys who spent 18 days trapped in a cave in 2018 and the 33 Chilean miners rescued in 2010. In both cases, all survived.
“When they came out they were put on broad spectrum antibiotics,” says Tipton. “Though they were desperate to eat, they weren’t allowed food. All the digestive enzymes will be reducing in terms of the amount and their activity. To stick a great big amount of food into the stomach, when it’s had nothing in it, is something of a challenge.”
The Robertsons reached Panama, where the British embassy put them up in a hotel. It was here that Douglas could fully experience the joy of ordering what he liked; he chose three servings of steak and eggs from the hotel restaurant, which made him “as sick as a bloody pig”. Being able to ask for it was satisfaction enough.
“Dougal put in his book ‘We reached a pinnacle of contentment that we would never reach again in our lives,’ and it’s true, you know, you can’t reach that pinnacle of contentment,” says Douglas.
“We went down the market and there were turtles there being butchered. We looked at turtle steaks with a different eye, you know, thought ‘Well it’s not like our turtle steaks – they were straight off the bone’.”
The feature is written by By William Park