Remember yesterday when you heard that a man, South-African in nationality and iron in will, had been plucked outta the ocean after falling overboard and floating on his back for 28 hours?
His name is Brett Archibald. You also heard that the ship who found him was the Barrenjoey. You might’ve then discovered that the gentleman captaining said Barrenjoey was Australian Tony ‘Doris’ Eltherington. This is the name of a man who helped spearhead a rescue op and, along with a proactive fleet, tirelessly trawled kilometres of ocean without giving up a squeak of that pretty little thing called hope. Stab shoot though a gap in island-chain reception to light up Doris’ phone in the haze of post-rescue glory.
Stab: How long did you search for?
Doris: I got the call at 12:30pm, and it was 6:55am the following day when we found him. I collected the guy at 6:55 and I cracked a Bintang at 7:02.
What did you know?
There wasn’t a great deal of information going around at all. The weather was absolutely deplorable. We were anchored up in Tua Pejat, and the vessel involved, that Brett had been on, had been anchored there. One of my legendary Indonesian crew went in and saw the Harbour Master to clear our boat in, ’cause you need clearance in and out of the Mentawais. And he came flying back to me, going “Cap! A guy’s fallen off the side of Naga Laut!” I just went, “There’s a man out there dying, let’s fucking go.” I rang everyone I could and everyone just went, “We’re coming, we’re coming.” Martin (Daly) deployed Trader III, everyone just got going. We jumped in the Binda Laut, Johnny (McGroder)’s dinghy with the twin 175s, with the doctors and a few of the boys from Western Australia, and hammered it out into 35-40 knot winds, on a course that I had half an idea about. We got out there and it was fucking horrendously horrible. I think I missed Brett by about a mile, because of the weather, going by my feelings on the track and looking at my plotter.
Must’ve been tough going out there.
I hammered it around til about 5:30pm and it was absolutely horrendous. The usual safety procedure is to look after yourself before you become another victim. I didn’t like what I was looking at in the tin boat. We had to run down wind to get back to the island, we were about 20 miles out to sea. It’s like being off Sydney or the Gold Coast in a 30-knot southerly. Whitewater and shit everywhere, trying to go sideways against this stuff and getting the shit kicked out of us. We went back to the boat and I stormed up and down all night smoking cigarettes. I couldn’t sleep. We deployed at 4am. We knew his last known location and, using our wits, calculated which way to go. We had a boat five miles further out and we were gonna go parallel up the coast on a NNW course, keeping in contact while the other boats tried to catch up to help. We wanted to get all boats in a line, with a mile between each other running parallel on our rough estimate of where this man should be. I had text messages and phone calls going until the signal ran out. I had the HF radios going full blast trying to co-ordinate. Then I went, fuck, I need a second. I went upstairs to have a ciggie and get off the radio for a second. Something happened up there. I’ve just lost one of my best friends, my ex-fleet manager, and I reckon he helped me. We got him buried that day. And I reckon he called out and gave us some help. I dunno, I just lay the boat about 18 degrees further north, and went, this guy’s gotta be in this sector. Now, I’ve just done four months’ oil and gas work, and you learn to look to the horizon and then come back to the boat, so you don’t look over the water, you’ve gotta scan up and down. I went to the crew upstairs and said, “Here’s the binoculars, boys.” I’d no sooner done two steps and my deckie went, “Cap! There he is!” My heart fell through my ass, mate. I was crying and yelling over the radio, “We’ve got him!” We hammered it and pulled up to him, threw life rings, surfboards, water, all my guests who are these top guys from WA dived over and grabbed him, hugged him, supported him, brought him back up. And we downloaded him with the doctors, that whole process.
What did he say?
Brett reckons he was in the water 27 hours. Sharks circling him. He reckons he was gonna die eight times, but he didn’t. He was thinking about his kids and wife. And fucking seagulls, trying to land on his baldy head, trying to pluck his eyes out. He reckons the seagulls saved his life ’cause he had to keep fighting the fuckers and he was trying to grab hold of one to rip its head off and drink its blood. He reckons they kept him alive ’cause he was thinking, “Fuck, I’m not gonna get my eyes plucked out.” Anyway. Got him. All good mate. He told me he’d been chronically sea sick and had diarrhoea. Obviously he went and ate in a Padang restaurant. He was chronically ill, spewed and shit and all that stuff three times, and the fourth time he went up he reckons he fainted. He must have come outta the air-con, been extremely ill, and he said to me that he doesn’t remember falling, but he certainly remembers the water on his face when he wasn’t on the boat anymore.
Did you backtrack over the same area much?
Certainly. But soon I went, “Nup, this ain’t happening.” Something in my heart and instinct said fuck it, I’m turning this boat 18 or 20 degrees further north. With the tide, and the wind the night before, I was going, this guy’s gotta be in this sector. If he’s still alive. I was hoping I wasn’t gonna pick up a corpse.
Did you lose hope at any point and think you were gonna just find a body?
No fucken way, mate. Not when I got the text message off Johnny going, “Brett Archibald, 51, cyclist, fit, father of two,” etc. When you get the father of two young kids, you know the guy’s got a lot more strength. The kids give you strength ’cause you wanna see them again. And once I heard he was a fit fella, I knew there was hope. And because the water’s so warm up here, like, it’s 28 to 30 celsius, you’ll last a month, you won’t die of hypothermia like you would off Sydney or Tassie, where you’re gonna go in about an hour or three.
What made you keep at it?
I’ve got three kids and three grandkids, mate. I know how he would’ve felt. It could’ve been one of us. We’re Aussies, we’re tough little vegemites. We don’t give up. I had no intention of giving up at all. – Elliot Struck