"Solitude is terrifying and awe-inspiring in Alone." The Wall Street Journal
In April 2013, fifty-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, sixty 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 ten to fourteen 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.
SOMEWHERE IN THE MENTAWAI STRAIT
WEDNESDAY, 17 APRIL 2013 2.15AM
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.
A great weight forces my chin to my chest. I'm somersaulting, tumbling, turning as if in a washing machine. Why didn't we play this game as kids, I think to myself. Fill the washing machine up with soap, climb in and switch on! What a cool game that would've been!
My knees are suddenly thrust towards my chest, my feet crumpling into my backside, foetal-like. Momentarily, it's exhilarating. Bubbles crowd around my face, bursting against my cheeks and closed eyes. I hear a gurgle as they froth from my ears and nose. I try to fix on another sound; it's distant and indistinct. I realise I'm hearing voices, hollow and thin. They remind me of the tin-can telephones we used to make as kids.
'Arch, wake up! Wake up, we're there. We're going for a surf. Wake up!'
Tony and JM sound relentlessly upbeat, giggling as they pour water over my head. Man-child pranks; fifty-year-olds behaving like schoolboys – normal behaviour on our surf trips.
'Don't splash water on my bed!' I hear myself shouting at them. I am meticulous about my bunk being clean and tidy. 'This cabin has no portholes. The sheets won't dry.'
Their laughter recedes and is replaced with a roar that fills my head. I'm suddenly aware of water all around my body, warm contracting pressure against my arms and legs, my chest and neck. Walls of water emerge from the surrounding darkness to swamp my face, flood my nose and wash down my throat.
I cough violently and open my eyes. I wipe away the water to find no cabin, no cohorts. The dream instantly evaporates.
I'm in the ocean, fully awake and alert. The wind is howling and the surf boiling around me. Perhaps thirty metres ahead, the Naga Laut, its upper and lower deck lights pulsating through the storm, is moving slowly away from me.
Incredulity hits like a crowbar, my heart hammering in my chest. Is this really happening? It must be some kind of out-of-body experience. I'll snap out of it in a second and somehow be back on deck.
But this is no dream.
Instead, I'm in the ocean, in the centre of a storm.
I hear the diesel engine of the boat grinding against the roar of the wind, and for a moment its acrid fumes reach my nostrils, bringing a further surge of vomit into my mouth. This is real all right, and an unseen wave hits me from behind as if to confirm it.
'Hey!' I scream. My throat is thick, as though I've swallowed a tennis ball. My voice doesn't sound like my own. 'Hey! Hey! Hey!' I scream so loud my lungs feel as if they're going to burst. I propel my upper body as far as I can out of the water in a water polo lift, waving both arms wildly above my head.
'Baz, over here! Baz!' I yell about five or six times as hard as I can. Baz, the Indonesian engineer, does not hear me.
I shout again. And again. My throat begins to burn from the effort. But the sound is stolen away by the waves and the wind and the rain, now beginning to obscure my vision. Calling for help is futile. I'm simply wasting energy trying to get them to hear me.
I can't see anyone else on the back of the boat, but I can make out Banger lying on the upper deck, face down with his head in a bowl.
No-one has seen me fall overboard.
The reality hits me and my mind starts racing. Instinctively, I start swimming after the boat.
You know it's pointless.
I don't know if I think this or say it out loud.
The boat's moving – at what? Probably about six-and-a-half-knots in this storm? You'll never catch them.
Disbelief. Desperation. A slow-spreading sense of dread.
Then something that is for me a little rusty – I begin to pray. 'Please, God. Please. Please, let someone have seen me. Please make the boat turn around and come back for me.'
I can't make out any activity on the Naga Laut as the boat forges on into the night, the stern getting smaller and smaller. The muscles in my throat are like lead pipes as I watch it recede. I will the boat to turn but it keeps going. Leaving me behind.
It comes out as a whisper. My stomach has begun to contract beneath my ribcage and I'm finding it hard to breathe.
I know. Inside, I know. This is where I die.
Still, I start counting.
I'm a qualified sailor and know the rules of Man Overboard. You practise it a hundred times when you get your skipper's ticket. If someone falls overboard, you throw him a life-ring and start counting – One-thousand-and-one, one-thousand-and-two, one-thousand-and-three ... – to measure the distance until the captain turns the boat around.
... one-thousand-and-fifteen, one-thousand-and-sixteen, one-thousand-and-seventeen ...
Was there a chance? A hope? Could someone have seen me go over?
... one-thousand-and-twenty-three, one-thousand-and-twenty-four ...
The boat begins to lose its shape in the blackness; the lights become increasingly dimmer, then they're just a blur. I watch the boat go, a toy in the distance. It looks so vulnerable in the angry storm and yet it's my retreating refuge.
I wait, stunned, desperately treading water. My outstretched arms pull great circles in the swirling foam as I fight to take breaths between the waves. My soaked T-shirt, constricted across my chest, feels like it's trying to suffocate me.
I'm in the ocean, unwittingly abandoned.
'I'm going to die out here,' I say to no-one in particular.
It started with an email, a tantalising invitation to surf the world's best waves in a magnificent tropical paradise. The idea was fuelled by blokey banter and talked up over time and more than the occasional beer.
Just cause was found – 'What better way to celebrate a fiftieth birthday?' – and taken up by Tony Singleton, who called on his circle of ten closest friends to sign up. The lure? A dream surf charter trip to the Mentawai Islands in Indonesia.
The ten men, all South Africans in their early fifties, had been mates since school. A couple had started out together as five-year-olds in Class One; others had known one another since primary school. But most had forged their friendships as tousled-haired teenagers in the corridors and on the sports fields of Durban's Westville Boys' High.
'Boys,' Tony wrote in the email, 'the time has come. Kry daardie gevoel!'?*
He explained that he'd made a tentative booking on the Naga Laut, the same boat that a few of them had used the previous year, and he outlined dates and costs.
'This is fairly early season, but the trip is over full moon, so crowds should not be too bad and we will get waves. Guys, I know things are tight now but will be easing up, so let's look ahead and get this going. You in?'
By that Sunday evening Niall Hegarty, Craig Killeen, Mark Ridgway, Mark Snowball, Jean-Marc Tostee, Benoit Maingard, Brett Archibald, Eddie Pickles and Tony himself had all confirmed. Weyne Mudde needed a little more time to convince his wife and children that time away with the boys was a fitting way to celebrate his fiftieth birthday.
They were to leave behind their boardroom meetings and business pressures, relationship niggles and cumbersome mortgages to escape on a trip that they would later christen the 'Ten Green Bottles Tour', referring to Bintangs, the thin, watery lager consumed in Indonesia.
Indonesian surf charters are expensive in anyone's language and consequently are most often made up of the middle-aged and more well-to-do. They also frequently comprise disparate groups, people from different countries who don't know one another. But this charter was different. It was to be a reunion of old friends, many of whom had been separated by time and geography for years. They came together again with one unifying desire: their love of riding the sea.
The ten had all surfed since childhood, but now with families and businesses to run surfing had become a more occasional pastime. For those who lived near the sea the opportunity to surf presented itself more often, but it still could never match the addiction of their youth. The days when the warm Indian Ocean off Durban's east coast called them from their Westville Boys' classrooms.
The sea was their playground.
It was 1970s South Africa, a time when surfing champion Shaun Tomson was at the peak of his international fame. Surfing was considered a 'rebel' sport with a mad, bad reputation with which many of the boys identified. It became a bond between them.
As fourteen-year-olds, Tony, Weyne, Ed and Mark 'Ridgy' Ridgway would hitchhike in baggies and T-shirts, boards under arm, down the hilly highway from their Westville North homes to the long sweeps of sand and cooling winds of Durban's city beaches. They'd hook up with the others: the Tostee brothers, Craig, Benoit (known as 'Banger'), Niall and Brett from Westville Central and South, and Mark Snowball ('Snowman') – from the suburb of Glenwood but 'an honorary Westville bloke' – to spend the whole day surfing.
It was a free life in the extreme.
On weekends they'd get up at 4.30am and hitch down to Durban's pristine beaches and perfect rolling waves
For Niall Hegarty, a recent immigrant from England, surfing became a way to make friends. 'There was no more beautiful sight than sitting on your board and watching the sun rise over the waves.'
JM, although a year below the others in school, was equal to them in the water. The Tostee boys were mad about the ocean; JM's younger brother Pierre would go on to become a Springbok surf champion. Tony also surfed with his older brother and would go on surfing family holidays to Southbroom and the wilder Transkei coast.
Over the years, some of the men had gone in search of greater rides; international surf spots had beckoned. Indonesia had become a favourite with its dazzling beaches and unmatchable reef breaks. So when the opportunity for the ten of them to surf in the Mentawais arose, they all leapt at it.
The Ten Green Bottles Tour was set. At the last minute, Ed Pickles had to pull out due to a skin cancer scare, but the nickname stuck because he was there in spirit. And so, in April 2013, the nine men found themselves converging in Indonesia – from their respective cities around South Africa and from the other countries to which some had emigrated – to do what they loved most, in a place they all dreamed about. Across the Indian Ocean, in Australia, Perth waste manager Lyall Davieson began a remarkably similar process in January 2013. With a chain of phone calls that darted up and down the Western Australian coastline, he was determined to fulfil the wish of his best friend, Simon Carlin, who wanted to celebrate his fiftieth birthday on a surf charter in the Mentawais.
Lyall had taken weeks to contact Simon's inner circle, a group of nine men who had all been close friends since high school. Many of them had surfed together since they were boys, taking one another on in the waves off Perth's Rottnest Island, up near their neighbourhood Trigg Point, or pitting themselves against the challenging waves at Margaret River.
Apart from Simon, Lyall had, in a flurry of emails, finally secured Colin Chenu, Dave Carbon, Pete Inglis, Jeff Vidler, Justin Vivian, Mark Swan and Gary Catlin. They were all seasoned surfers and many had been on Indonesian charters before, but this time they were looking for a slightly different experience – something a little less run-of-the-mill. They wanted to test their skills and strength in more remote surf spots and take on waves that were more formidable.
As the designated trip organiser, Lyall scoured the internet, trawling the irresistible Mentawai menu for a surf charter that was prepared to do the unconventional. For this they needed a charter captain who was different: someone who knew where to find those fiendish waves, who appreciated their attraction and who respected the danger involved. A man who understood that the hunt for the perfect wave never ends.
Leaving behind their personal and professional concerns, the nine Western Australians left at the end of the first week in April 2013 to fly via Bali to Padang. There they would meet up with one of the most skilled veteran skippers known in the area. A hard man and a good man, someone who was respected as a true man of the sea: Tony 'Doris' Eltherington, Australian expat captain of the Rajah Elang and one-time Gold Coast surfing legend.
Indonesia – Indo – is famed for its surf spots. But if Bali is considered the sport's stronghold of money and tourism, the reefs and bays of the Mentawai Island Regency are its Holy Grail. This is an archipelago within an archipelago. Remote, exotic and, alluringly, a little dangerous, it's a collection of around seventy islands in a great ocean expanse, the main ones with beautiful sibilant names such as Siberut, North and South Pagai and Sipura. They're separated from the west coast of Sumatra by a perilous stretch of water, more than one hundred nautical miles wide, called the Mentawai Strait.
If you close your eyes and dream of a perfect island locale, a picture of the Mentawais might come to mind: shimmering, clear blue seas, powder-white beaches with nearby coral reefs and tropical palm forests, wild and undeveloped. However, their beauty has come at a price.
The islands sit on the angry Sunda megathrust, a zone of seismic activity that hosts regular earthquakes and their accompanying deadly tsunamis. The smaller quakes are frequent and come with death tolls, but it's the big ones that hit the headlines, most notoriously in December 2004 when the Boxing Day tsunami, emanating from the northern limits of the Mentawais, resulted in one of recorded history's worst natural disasters. The death toll was estimated at anywhere between 230,000 and 284,000, with half a million injured and entire villages wiped from the earth. More than half of those killed were Indonesian. Some Mentawai Islanders claim that entire villages were wiped out and that the death toll from the area was never fully realised.
The local people have, however, learnt to live with nature's temper. It's meeting the modern world face to face that has been harder to deal with.
Behind the palm trees are the real-life problems: poverty, poor housing, lack of infrastructure, malnutrition and massive health epidemics.
Modern progress has brought these changes – but really only since the early 1900s. Previously, the Islands' contact with the outside world was, bizarrely, quite minimal.
Despite being part of the dynamic eastern trade routes since the 5th century, the Mentawai Islands remained largely isolated for hundreds of years, some claim because of their strong ocean currents, unpredictable winds and natural perimeter defence system: the razor-sharp coral reefs that surround many of the islands.
Today the indigenous Mentawai have mostly forsaken their umas, the traditional village houses where clans once lived beneath one roof. They've been resettled in poverty-stricken towns in artificial administrative districts where cholera and hepatitis are rife. And the shamans have cellphones.
Rickety motorcycles comprise the main mode of transport on land, while people get around from village to village on the water, on the rivers and across the bays, in perahu or dug-out canoes. Surprisingly, despite being water people, many don't know how to swim.
Notwithstanding the challenges of modern living and the ever-present threat of nature's wrath, the islands are blessed with a sublime natural gift: an unsurpassed sea. Ironically, it's the seismic activity and unstable ocean beds that have over time caused the reefs to rise by several metres and they, in turn, produce every surfer's yen: great thunderous barrels.
Along with Hawaii and Tahiti, the Mentawais have become a surfing Promised Land. The menacing reefs have sifted out the wannabees and it is the more experienced surfers who bring their sunblock and boards from all over the world to surf consistent swells that have been christened with unforgettable names like 'Thunders', 'Macaronis', 'Bat Caves', 'Playgrounds', 'Hollow Trees', 'Bintangs', 'Scarecrows', 'Telescopes', 'E-Bay', 'Bank Vaults' and the titillating 'Nipussi' or 'Pussies'.
Surfing brings tourism – and money – to the islands.
Excerpted from "Alone"
Copyright © 2016 Brett Archibald.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Somewhere in the Mentawai Strait,
Three Years Later,
Cast of Characters,
About the Author,
In this intense memoir, Archibald describes how in the middle of the night in 2013, he fell into the Indian Ocean while vomiting off the side of a boat he and his friends had chartered for a birthday surfing trip. For the next 28 hours he struggled to survive as he fought off a shark, jellyfish, and birds and struggled with his own fears and regrets. His friends discovered his disappearance eight hours after he fell overboard and launched a rescue effort that was hindered by bad weather and a lack of emergency resources in the area. Luckily, they happened on a group of Australians who also had hired a boat for their own surfing adventure; that boat’s captain, “a hostage to his past” who had saved himself from his own “demons,” saw it as his duty to find Archibald. The narrative approach can be disconcerting, however: Archibald writes in the first person as he describes his struggles in the water, then switches to third person when writing about himself from his friends’ and family’s perspectives (“Brett was notable, even admired, for his high-spirited misbehavior”). Nevertheless, this survival tale pairs action with emotion and feels ready-made for the big screen. (Nov.)
"This survival tale pairs action with emotion and feels ready-made for the big screen." Publishers WeeklyFrom the Publisher