A surfer lies on his board ready to catch a wave as the sun sets below the horizon of the sea behind him
14th February 2017 The MALESTROM

“This is how I die” – Brett Archibald: Lost at sea

When Brett Archibald and his close knit group of friends organised a surfing trip, they imagined a holiday they’ll never forget, the events that transpired however became memorable for the wrong reasons. On April 17th 2013 South African Brett (50), was struck down by a case of food poisoning in the early hours of the morning, they were crossing a stretch of water known as the Mentawai Strait in the Indian Ocean, it was dark and a storm was terrorising the sea.

As Brett stumbled to the deck to find some sickness relief he felt dizzy and blacked out, when he came round he was in the water. With no life jacket, and the boat disappearing into the distance Brett realised very quickly that this could well be the end. The MALESTROM spoke exclusively with Brett, to discuss sharks, hallucinations and a traumatic 28 hour fight for survival that would change his life forever.

The MALESTROM: Brett, what went through your head when you first fell overboard?

Brett Archibald: I blacked out but I didn’t realise it at the time, and I fell six metres from the top deck into the water and I was unconscious. I was sucked under the boat, tumbling around and I thought it was a dream but it morphed pretty quickly into reality. Then when I popped out of the water I saw our boat no more than 30 metres away and carrying on and my first thought was,

“Oh my God this is where I die.”

Brett Archibald hanging over the side of a boat when he returns to the spot he went overboard

Brett returns to the spot he went overboard

TM: That’s terrifying

BA: It was miles from anywhere, it was the dead of night, and its incredible how quickly our brain can work you know. It was just flying along trying to calculate all these facts. I’m 100 km’s out to sea, no one even knows how deep this ocean even is, boats don’t come this way as it’s not a shipping channel, it was a massive storm, it was a crazy feeling, I was very calm and I just went right, “this is how I die” and my first thought was how will I die and how long will it take?

TM: So, because it was so extreme, you immediately thought death was calling?

BA: Yep, and I remember looking skywards and I heard this crazy laughter, like a hyena and I couldn’t work out what it was, then I realised it was me, this crazy laughter coming from my throat. And I thought, you know Brett if someone had bet you where you’d die, you’d never have guessed this spot. The waves were crashing over my head I couldn’t tread water or lie on my back so I just paddled breaststroke, like a frog. I didn’t try to swim anywhere I just tried to keep myself afloat.

TM: But you weren’t the strongest swimmer, is that right? 

BA: I’m a rubbish swimmer I tell you. It’s very interesting, I worked with a sports scientist when I came back for a long time afterwards to try and understand the physiological side. I’m not even a great surfer, I was fit from cycling but that’s about it. My arms and legs kept getting cramp and I was seriously depleted when I went overboard. The power of the mind is an incredible thing and as soon as I thought of my wife and kids, I thought I’ve got to fight for them. Our will to survive as human beings is very hard to describe, we will fight to the bitter end to survive, no human being goes down without a fight. I calmed myself down, my brain calmed down very quickly, but my heartbeat was over 170 beats a minute and it was just racing.

TM: When you came to your senses, did it make it worse that it was night time?

BA: Oh yeah, I couldn’t see a thing, I didn’t know where I was, I couldn’t see the waves coming, they smashed me on the head, it’s hard to find a word to describe the terror and horror of that moment, there isn’t one, it was so bad. I had no idea what was below me and your brain starts automatically thinking there’s some creature that’s going to come and swallow you.

TM: Pretty early on you started having strong feelings about your childhood and in particular about your father?

BA: Well, I had some horrific memories from childhood and my Dad suffered terribly from Bi-polar. And I started thinking, “Dad, where are you? Are you up or are you down? Is there really a heaven, is there really a hell?” You start questioning all the things you’ve learnt in life. I walked in and found my Dad had slit his throat with a bread knife at a very young age, and that’s haunted me my whole life. Every boy wants his Dad to be his hero and when that gets taken away from you at a young age and those memories came flooding back …

TM: Did the thoughts of your Dad have affect on your will to survive?

BA: Well, my thoughts were really for my wife and kids. I’d been married for ten years, she was my best friend, my soul mate and my life and I was actually very angry that I was going to die. Anger drove me a lot you know because this was not fair, my son was only six, my daughter only nine years old. I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m not going to see them again, I’m going to fight for this.’

Brett Archibald's family sit on a rock with the sea in the background. His fire, son and daughter

Brett’s family

TM: So, there was an overwhelming feeling of love that kept you going?

BA: Oh yeah, they are my whole life and without them life’s just not worth it. It was a very focussed committed decision. I’m going to fight as hard as I can. But there were times towards the end where I couldn’t carry on and I said goodbyes, I mean I said goodbyes to them a number of times.

TM: You couldn’t see the shore, there wasn’t any. So was your main goal to keep afloat, to make sure you didn’t drown?

BA: I knew without a shadow of a doubt that my mates would come back for me. As South Africans we had all done national service, we’d all been trained in the military so I knew the moment they realised I was missing they would activate a proper search and rescue mission, and that became my only thought. And I calculated that the worse case scenario would be 14 hours and how do you stay afloat for 14 hours? Just swim to keep your head up so you can breathe.

TM: Was that a comforting thought, absolute belief in your friends?

BA: Oh yeah, I knew they were coming back and the crazy thing is they did come back for me and they got within 100 metres of me, I could see their faces, I could see the anguish on my mates faces and I was so convinced they’d seen me. They stopped the boat, they were looking at me and I was thinking, “This is it. I’m rescued.” I put my head down and gave everything to swim to the boat and no matter what I did I could not get there, the next minute they sailed away, they never saw me!

Brett Archibald on the back of a boat with his mates. All men have their tops off and shorts on

Brett with his mates

TM: That must have been absolute torture. After how any hours was that?

BA: 12 hours. They’d seen a piece of polystyrene floating and they thought it was my bald head. Once they realised it wasn’t me they set sail.

TM: Unbelievable! What the hell went through your mind when that happened?

BA: I let rip at the world, I just screamed blue murder, I could not believe it. I was screaming at God, I was screaming at the universe, I was screaming at the world. I knew then it was all over, as I knew nobody else was coming. That moment was worse than when I found myself in the water the first time. When they sailed away I was done, I just wanted it to end.

TM: And you still managed to keep yourself afloat?

BA: I did, but you know now I’ve had to have two shoulder operations as I have completely worn away both my rotator cuffs.

TM: You might have to write another book about the second stage of your life?

BA: I’m already on that mate.

TM: You were quite a successful businessman in your life beforehand. Do you think the fact that you were successful and driven had an impact on your will to survive?

BA: There is no doubt about that. I was the CEO of a very successful company and I looked after many countries, and when you’re the boss at that level you have no mates, so I was very driven by money and power and fast cars, partying etc, and I’m a determined little bugger and I don’t like giving up.

TM: One of the keys to your survival was that you kept working out which way the current was flowing?

BA: I hadn’t been in the water longer than half an hour and I was exhausted. I couldn’t work out why I was so tired. I didn’t know but the current was travelling very fast at the time, and just technically, I’ve since found out that if your body is floating in a mass of water at that kind of speed, your body will automatically face the current, because your head and shoulders are the heaviest part of the body and your legs would drag behind you at a slight angle. Then I threw away this little piece of paper that I had in my pocket and I saw it speed away. I then started thinking, “Current, current, current.” Then I turned round and followed that and I thought I was on a magic carpet ride. I knew from surfing that all currents lead to land and I knew I had to follow it, and that motivated me.

TM: You also came up with another way of motivating yourself by inventing a little company?

BA: Yeah, I don’t know why but I nicknamed my mouth Bob, in charge of production, and Bob would say, “Keep your mouth open, I can’t breathe, and keep your head up.” My left nostril was Emily, sales and marketing, and my right nostril was Hilary and they were the two ladies on the firm. I remember falling asleep and I heard the girls screaming at me, “Look at the boss, sleeping on the job!” And I said to them, “I cannot lift my head anymore.” And they said, “You have to, we can’t breathe.” And I remember saying, “Okay sales, what are we going to do? What are our targets?” And they said, “Hey boss, you’ve got to start to count.” And I remember starting to count again to keep my concentration and track the time, one thousand and one, one thousand and two, and that just kept me going, it was bizarre.

TM: How key was the water temperature to your survival?

BA: It was one of the most important things, the water was about 26, 27 degrees C, so it was warm, but as night came it would drop to about 21C. At night I was so cold my teeth were chattering and I remember biting lumps off my tongue and I couldn’t control it, it was so excruciating, but I think it was one of the things that kept me awake you know. My tongue was so big and I was pushing pieces of my tongue back down my throat and swallowing it as I didn’t want it to go into the water as sharks would sense the blood. And I think the anger around the pain was another thing that kept me going and I was screaming and making noises and talking to myself, but it kept me going, it really did keep me going.

The toll the Ocean took on Brett’s body

TM: And your t-shirt became a dead weight and your skin started to suffer?

BA: Every time I went through a wave my t-shirt pulled my back and it felt so heavy that I threw that away, and my fingers were swollen and the size of sausages, flesh was falling off them, it was terrible.

TM: You also had some terrifying encounters with marine life. What happened?

BA: The first guys were Portuguese men of war, jellyfish. I remember floating on my back and then suddenly I felt this pain on my back and my neck and then everywhere I looked was these Portuguese men of war on me, stinging me, and I actually welcomed it. All these negative thoughts, “Right, I’m going die now, let it be quick,” and then the will to survive kicked in and I remember pulling these things off and screaming and shouting. Another time I’d fallen asleep and I woke up and my flesh was excruciatingly sore and I saw all these fish eating the skin around my legs.

TM: What was the most terrifying?

BA: Oh, being bumped by a shark. I looked at this thing under the water and I thought, “No way!” It bumped me in the lower back, turned me right around and I went under the water and saw this guy and my first thought was, “Oh my God, that’s the size of a London red bus.” But the reality was it was a tiny black tipped reef shark you know, they just look magnified under water. He could have taken my arm off, a hand off or a leg. At one point I just wanted him to take me by the neck and end it all, but he turned and went and then I got angry because I didn’t want him to go, I wanted to grab on to his tail so he could tow me back to a reef. That’s how depraved my mind was. I was convinced I could grab hold of his tail and get a lift back near to some land. I was so devastated when he swam away, that was the closest I came to crying.

TM: Didn’t you also start to hallucinate?

BA: Yeah, I saw the Virgin Mary, she was right there in the sky, bent over, hands together in prayer, bent over and looking at m, it was exactly the form of the one that used to be in a church when I was a kid.

TM: Did that work as any kind of inspiration?

BA: Oh yeah, I thought God had sent me a sign, he’d sent Mary to me and I thought, “Is this the end? Or do I keep fighting?” And then I saw a buoy in the water. I quickly swam all the way to it and it wasn’t there, it wasn’t real! And all these hallucinations kept me swimming, they kept me moving and alive.

Oh buoy

TM: After about 19 hours it wasn’t from underwater you got attacked, but from the air?

BA: Oh yeah, them damn seagulls. I must have fallen asleep again and I woke up when something attacked the back of my head and I looked up and another one exploded on the bridge of my nose and I didn’t know what it was, I was completely dazed and shocked and I looked up at them and I could not believe that seagulls were trying smash my face in, you know. I found out afterwards that they were after pecking out my eyes, that’s what they go for.

TM: After 23 hours in the water you had another powerful hallucination?

BA: Someone once told me if you’re ever going to drown you see the souls of sailors lost at sea. And the very first thing I saw was this little boat with some kids in it. They came paddling up to me saying, “Mister, Mister, we come rescue you!” I went to grab the front of their boat and there was nothing there. Then a while later I saw this 1634 Dutch East Indie wooden sailing ship coming through the water. I knew what it was because I’d made a model boat of one of those as a child, and this boat was so real I could hear the timber creaking and I saw these two, really horrible looking pirate kind of sailors and they were shouting at me, “Swim young man, swim!” And I shouted back to them and I swam up to the boat and they threw a rope ladder down to me, I even heard it go ‘boom, boom, boom’ as it unfolded down the side of the boat. And I swam up to it and there was nothing there …

TM: Wow, that’s mad, really mad!

BA: Yeah, it’s radical. I tell you it was as real as real could be, the sound of the planks creaking, the noise of the ladder, the sailors shouting … it was there mate.

TM: It’s surprising you didn’t want to drown right there and then.

BA: Oh I did, I did. But I think it was those things that helped keep me alive, they caused me to be angry and the anger made me come to my senses and if those things hadn’t of happened. I think I would have just fallen into unconsciousness.

TM: So how has this freak accident changed your life?

BA: It changed my life 180 degrees. I was the CEO of a big business and I came back and sold it. I made myself a pact that I would never work in an environment that made me sad or unhappy again, and I never went back there. Now, I only spend time in environments that make me happy, put a smile on my face and where I can add value. Not once when I was in the ocean did I ever think about how much money I had in the bank, what car I drove, what house I lived in, it meant nothing. All I thought about was my relationship with my family, my relationship with God and my relationship with my friends, that’s all that was important.

TM: When that boat found you after 28 and half hours. That’s as close as you’ll get to a miracle?

BA: Yeah, well and the captain of that boat you know, his crew member was in the port authority’s office when the skipper of my boat walked in and announced that I was missing, man overboard. And when that captain, Tony Eltherington, heard this he turned to the charters he had on board, nine Aussies who were all celebrating a 50th birthday and said, “Guys, I’m going to look for this guy.” And they all said, “We’re coming with you.” And they went out in a tiny boat first of all and looked for me for 8 hours in a terrible storm until they were called back. Tony, the captain had recently lost his best friend to cancer and his sister too and that had affected him deeply, and apparently he was like a man possessed, he was so determined, saying, “I should have found that guy, I should have found him.” Then apparently, he saw a bunch of coconuts floating by and they were floating the wrong way, they were floating in the wrong direction of what the current should have been going, and he realised the current had changed direction because of the ferocity of the storm and they’d been looking in the wrong place.

TM: No way?

BA: Yep, the next morning he threw coconuts into the water to see which way the current was flowing, and he followed those coconuts. He knew my body would be on the current and I’d either be alive or dead … and eventually he found me! It was a miracle.

TM: That’s just incredible! If it wasn’t true you wouldn’t believe it.

BA: You could not make this story up, no way, and when they were sailing up to me I thought it was another hallucination.

Brett Archibald in the water being rescued

Safe at last

TM: What went through your mind when they rescued you?

BA: I stood there on their boat saying, “I cannot believe I’ve been rescued. I cannot believe I’ve been rescued.” And I kept hugging them. I had to keep pinching myself as I thought it was another hallucination you know. I’d kept myself afloat in the water without any help for 28 and half hours … I don’t know how I did it.

Brett Archibald with blue and white striped towel over his head looking exhausted

Brett never threw in the towel

TM: What did you say to that captain?

BA: Well, you know, there are no words to say to a guy who saved your life … there’s not enough words in the English language to thank someone who went out of their way, who put themselves selflessly and his crew at complete risk to save another persons life. There’s no words for that, we’re still friends to this day.

TM: When you finally got home and saw your wife and children, what was that like?

Reunited

BA: Oh mate, there’s no words to describe that moment. I was so overwhelmed, I was just holding my wife and my kids and my arms were shaking, crying, but it didn’t last very long because the South African media were there in droves and we had to be whisked away. That was the happiest day of my life. Everyday I thank God I’m alive.

Brett Archibald is now a hugely successful motivational speaker. You can purchase a copy of his book ‘Alone’: Lost Overboard in the Indian Ocean here

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