Doug Robertson had just replaced the sextant in its box when there was a massive crash from underneath the boat.
‘Sledgehammer blows of incredible force,’ is how he later described them, ‘… hurling me against the bunk.’
|The Robertson family: seeking adventure.|
He wrenched up the floorboards of the family’s schooner to see what was wrong. He found himself gazing at a massive hole - punctured by a killer whale - ‘through which water was pouring in with torrential force.’
It was immediately clear that nothing could be done to save the boat. The Lucette, a 43-foot pleasure craft, was sinking fast. The Robertson family were about to find themselves adrift and alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Their survival was entirely in their own hands.
The Roberstons has set sail on their round-the-world voyage in January 1971 - Doug, his wife, Lyn, and their children, Douglas, Neil, Sandy. Also on board was Robin, a 22-year-old graduate who joined the family in Panama for the leg that would take them across the Pacific to New Zealand.
|Killer whale: that sinking feeling|
They were 200 miles down wind from the Galapagos Islands when the killer whale attacked. As the Lucette filled with water, Doug managed to release the stricken schooner’s little dinghy - named Ednamair - and salvage some food and supplies. Within minutes, the Lucette had slipped beneath the surface of the Pacific.
And so began an ordeal of survival that was to last fully 38 days. The family faced an enormous challenge: they had precious little food and water and were lost in the middle of the earth’s biggest ocean. Few castaways in history have survived such challenging circumstances.
‘Breakfast consisted of our quarter-ounce biscuit, a piece of onion and a sip of water’, wrote Doug. But even these scant supplies were soon to dry up. The family knew that if they were to have any hope of survival, they would have to live off the ocean.
|Breakfast, lunch and supper|
A rain shower brought their first supply of water. Soon after, a huge dorado plopped in the bottom of the boat. Doug grabbed his knife and ‘plunged it into the head, just behind the eye.’ They had secured their first meal from the ocean depths.
The family’s ordeal was made worse by the heat of the tropical sun, which beat down on their dinghy. ‘We lay gasping in the torrid heat, sucking at pieces of rubber trying to create saliva to ease the burden of our thirst.’
By the end of the first week, they were all suffering form skin eruptions due to the exposure to salt water. By the end of the second, they were seriously hungry.
‘Turtle!’ yelled one of the boys. They managed to grab it and heave it aboard, plunging a knife into its throat in order to drain the blood. ‘I felt,’ wrote Doug, ‘as if I’d just drunk the elixir of life.’
As time went on, the family grew more confident that they could survive. They made tools, kept themselves reasonably healthy and relied on each other psychologically.
There were great dangers: violent storms flung their dinghy from peak to trough and they faced both extreme heat and terrible cold.
At one point, they found themselves caught in a ferocious tempest. ‘The rain doubled and redoubled until a frenzy of water fell from the sky; above the noise of the storm, I could hear Sandy sobbing and Lyn praying.’
|Alive - and rescued - after 38 days|
As time went on, the family got increasingly adept at plucking food from the ocean. They managed to kill 13 turtles, using a spear that they fashioned from a paddle, and even dispatched (and ate) a five-foot shark.
Lyn, who’d trained as a nurse, instigated an undignified (but efficacious) technique to keep them all hydrated with rainwater collected in the boat.
The water was contaminated by turtle blood and offal and would be poisonous if drunk. Aware of this, she insisted her family take enemas using tubes from the rung of a ladder.
Her reasoning was that if water is taken rectally, the poisons don’t work their way through the digestive system.
On day 38 of their ordeal, Doug gazed towards the horizon and caught sight of something.
‘A ship!’ I said. ‘There’s a ship and it’s coming towards us!.’
It was indeed - the Toka Maru II, a Japanese vessel. Its crew were astonished by the sight of the wild-looking Roberston family adrift in their dinghy and even more amazed when they heard the account of their ordeal.
After four days on board the Toka Maru II, the Robertsons reached Balboa in Panama, where they landed to a welcome fit for heroes.
Theirs was a staggering achievement: surviving 38 days at sea with almost no water or supplies.
Doug would later write an account of the family’s ordeal, Survive the Savage Sea. First published in 1973, it surely ranks as one of the great survival stories of all time.
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Doug Robertson's book is available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Survive-Savage-Sea-Sailing-Classics/dp/0924486732/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1301386192&sr=1-1