Wild Rides

Sometimes the interesting part of a surf experience has nothing to do with how well a wave was ridden, or if one was surfed at all

The boys, moments after Brett Archibald was rescued from the open water. Photo: Tostee
The boys, moments after Brett Archibald was rescued from the open water. Photo: Tostee

By Jeff Mull

Alone in the dark of the night, Brett Archibald floated on his back, miles away from land. His skin was blistered, his body was tapped, and his will to live was slipping away. Ready to give in, he attempted to swallow the seawater that surrounded him, but his body rejected it. He’d been treading water alone for more than a day and he was running on fumes. He’d been brushed by a shark, stung by jellyfish, and had seagulls pick at his eyes, but he hadn’t given up completely, yet.

Twenty eight hours earlier, Brett, 50, was onboard the Nagu Laut en route to the Mentawais for a surf trip. In the middle of the night, a storm had torn through the Mentawai Strait. At 3 a.m., feeling ill, Brett stumbled to the side of boat, vomited, passed out, and then fell overboard. He came to in the wake as the boat plowed onward. It wasn’t until 8 a.m. that Brett’s friends and the crew realized he’d gone missing.

The captain placed a distress call to all other vessels in the area and began retracing their steps. For the next 20 hours, scores of surf charter boats scoured the waters in search of Brett, to no avail. Brett’s wife, Anita, set up a Facebook page back in South Africa detailing what had happened to her husband, encouraging friends to pray for him.

“I gave up out there eight times during the entire ordeal,” Brett recalls, “but each time something incredible happened that energized me again.” He hallucinated about the Virgin Mary, thought of his wife and family, and contemplated all that he had accomplished in his life and all that he hadn’t. More than once, boats narrowly passed him by. Each time, the rough seas of the Indian Ocean cloaked his waving arms and muted his screams. At one point, a boat came within 500 meters of him, but then abruptly took a 90-degree turn back to sea.

“At that point, I gave up entirely,” he says. “I exhaled all the air from my lungs, sunk a meter or so below the surface, and inhaled a lung full of seawater and waited to slide into unconsciousness. Then I changed my mind. I came out of the water like a jet-propelled engine and lay on the surface coughing and spluttering. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black cross heading toward me. Another hallucination, I told myself. But it kept getting closer and closer and I suddenly realized it was the mast of a large yacht. It continued in my direction, but I was too exhausted to be energized. I knew it would turn away and leave me shattered and broken. And true to form, it turned left, but only slightly, and then continued course. I suddenly realized that if it stayed on that course and I put all my effort into it, I could intercept it at approximately 500 meters.”

Brett put everything he had into the next few minutes. He swam because his life depended on it. He lifted his head and began to shout, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” A man on the bow of the boat turned toward Brett, raised his binoculars, and then signaled to the other crew members that he’d seen a man. After 28 and a half hours alone at sea, he was saved.

The boat that rescued Brett, the BarrenJoey, was an Australian surf charter vessel that happened to have a doctor on board who administered Brett an IV. Physically broken and emotionally shattered, Brett called his wife via a satellite phone to let her know he was alive.

In the wake of his near-death experience, you’d expect Brett to have checked into the nearest hospital and hurry home. But after just a day’s rest, he chose to continue on with the rest of his trip. “I had to make my peace with the ocean, with God, and to assimilate and process the ordeal that I had just been through,” he says. “Had I not stayed on and completed the trip, I truly believe I would now be in a loony bin talking to sharks, jellyfish, and seagulls. It was cathartic for me and something I just had to do for my own sanity.”