SA surfer’s tale of survival at sea

Western Cape

Cape Town - His nose was so badly lacerated that a doctor had to glue it back together. This was just one reminder of Brett Archibald’s miraculous survival after spending 28 hours floating and treading water in the sea off the coast of Indonesia.

Craig Jarvis, spokesman for All Aboard Travel – the local company which had arranged for the Camps Bay surfer and friends to surf some of the best spots around Indonesia – said that Archibald’s nose had been pecked to pieces by seagulls.

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Brett Archibald surfs the waves along the Mentawai Islands' famous coastline. The surfer visits the island every two years with his friends. Photo: HandoutBrett Archibald and his wife, Anita, who said she was awake for two days since he was reported missing in the ocean off Indonesia. Photo: Handout

The 50-year-old surfer fell overboard from the charter boat Naga Laut, on which he and a group of friends were travelling between Padang Padang and the Mentawai Islands off the island of Sumatra.

The group, who have been friends since primary school, make the pilgrimage to surf Indonesia’s famous coastlines every two years.

But rough weather saw the boat rolling in the waves.

At about 4.30am on Wednesday, while the rest of the group were in the cabins below, either sleeping or battling sea sickness, Archibald went up on deck to relieve himself.

“Then I realised I was really seasick. I had two really big vomits, and then I think I blacked out while I was retching,” he told Surfing Life via satellite phone on Thursday.

When he regained consciousness he was floating in the white froth of the boat’s wake, watching his world sail away.

A few hours later his friends noticed he was missing and alerted the authorities.

Back in Cape Town, Archibald’s wife, Anita – and their two children, Zara, 10, and Jamie, 6 – knew something was wrong when the wife of one of the men onboard appeared at the front door early on Wednesday .

“When she told me what had happened my heart literally came out of my mouth… Your whole world just seems to slow down.”

But she did not give up hope, she said – she knew he was still out there.

Anita, her family and friends jumped into action, transforming the lounge of her Camps Bay home into an operations headquarters.

“We started contacting anyone who could help,” she said.

A call went out to all boats in the area off Indonesia to be on the look out for the surfer.

The National Sea Rescue Institute’s Craig Lambinon said the Indonesion Maritime Rescue Authorities – aided by the British maritime rescue organisation RNLI – the Australian maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre, Jakarta Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre and a host of private boats including yachts and fishing boats were included in the alert.


Unaware of the massive search operation, Archibald, who works with Awnmaster in Cape Town, admitted to Surfing Life that he had almost given up.

“The night was carnage. I had sharks swimming past me, I got stung by a jelly fish… Seagulls even tried to pick my eyes out, so I have big holes in my nose.

“It was insane, just insane. I actually gave up.

“I went under and said, ‘screw this, I can’t carry on’. But I couldn’t swallow water, I couldn’t get my lungs to take the water and I kept coming back up.

“So then I pulled myself together, said, ‘Okay, we need to keep going here’, and I kept swimming and treading water.”

Archibald, who had not been wearing a lifejacket when he fell overboard, had to keep himself afloat.

He told the surfing website that there was no driftwood or rogue boogie boards to latch on to.

He said he almost drowned eight times.

On Thursday at dawn, the surfer felt the end was close. It had been 28 hours of keeping his head above water, the sun beating down on his face as fish nipped at his body.

The sight of the 70ft ketch Barrenjoey at 6.30am was a sweet one.

The Australian owners of the vessel – John and Belinda McGroder – had set out earlier, armed with binoculars, to join the search.

They fished out the exhausted surfer who was ecstatic to be back on solid ground. Jarvis said the surfer seemed to forget the ordeal and was buoyed by a rush of adrenalin.

“He still has a bit of damage to his kidneys and lungs due to the dehydration, but other than that he’s okay… As you can imagine he’s just incredibly exhausted.”

Anita said when the news came through that he was fine, she felt like a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

For the past 28 hours her mind had been staving off terrible thoughts. Had he been hurt? Had he lost consciousness and drowned?

“I haven’t slept for two days,” she said.

But she wasn’t surprised when her husband told her, during their joyous telephone reunion, that he was going to finish his holiday.

“That’s my husband. He told me he hadn’t come all this way to tread water. He’s a diehard surfer, he is still going to chase the waves.”

She extended her thanks to everyone who helped with the search operation.

“I believe it was your support that kept him afloat.”

Archibald’s friends reported that the surfer had crumpled into an exhausted heap on to a bunk, and was sleeping off the ordeal, getting ready to face the waves under better circumstances.

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Cape Argus

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