Thursday, August 20, 2015

Survival in the Pacific Ocean





Survive the Savage Sea – Dougal Robertson (1973)

            When I was a young kid, and either stuck in a doctor’s waiting room, or taken by my parents to someone’s house for dinner, I would always gravitate to the books or magazines.  Many times the only thing available was old copies of Reader’s Digest.  I am not sure how it works now, but for the longest time the Digest would include true stories of people’s experiences in nature, whether stranded at sea, shipwrecked on a deserted island, or trapped in the wilderness with little hope of rescue.  Even though these stories were heavily abridged, I found them engrossing and would devour them when I could find them.  It may be that I read a shortened version of this book, Survive the Savage Sea, in those old Reader’s Digests.  I am glad to have been exposed to those magazines for they made me very appreciative of a well-written memoir, and the rush that a gripping true story can bring.
            I have reviewed several true-life tales similar to this one in this blog.  From a man who lost himself in the jungles of Peru and joined up with a cannibal tribe, to a Russian intellectual fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in the near-unknown wilds of Tibet, to the story of one star-crossed family traveling the Old West to settle new land, to the nearly unbearable, horrific story of an Olympic and WWII hero’s crash at sea, capture by enemy soldiers,and internment as a POW, these stories have burned themselves in my mind for they all share a common thread of the human unwillingness to succumb to death, and the will to fight and live another day, regardless of the seeming futility of the situation.  This story, however, is even more affecting, because it is a family that suffers this ordeal together.
            Mr. Dougal Robertson and his family were small-scale farmers scraping by in post WWII England.  Having been a sailor in the war, and having sailed with his family when the children were very young, Mr. Robertson dreamed of doing so again, and sold their farm, and all their possessions, purchasing a boat that would take the whole family on a year-long voyage around the world.  Part of their impetus for this trip was to expose their children to a larger world than the insular, secluded one of their small farm.  The first half of their trip was everything they expected.  They lived off the boat, sailed and visited many different ports, and went through the Panama Canal on their way to the Galapagos Islands.  By their account it was a great trip, and up until they left the Galapagos Islands they felt very comfortable in their new home.
            A few days later, the family is awoken by a massive pounding against their boat.  Three separate Orca whales had slammed the side of their hull, punching a large hole and quickly capsizing the boat.  The family managed to grab a few items, launch an inflatable raft and a small fiberglass dinghy, and get off the boat unharmed.  It sank very quickly and left them all, seven in total, stranded hundreds of miles from the nearest shipping lanes and even further from land.  The story that follows is one of incredible hardship, fortuitous events, and the grim determination to survive. 
            The family managed to collect rain water at times, catch flying fish, and turtles that would come close to their raft and boat, and subsist on the meat they would dry and save.  In a situation like this only the experienced and the prepared can survive, and it is the intimate sailing knowledge of Dougal Robertson that protected his family time after time.  From rigging up the fiberglass boat with a makeshift sail, to crafting a gaffe to catch fish, to patching up the countless holes and rips that would develop in an overloaded inflatable raft, to maintaining headings and locations purely by dead reckoning, his knowledge and experience saved his family.  He managed to keep a log on a piece of sailcloth where he noted everything that happened which allowed him to recreate the story perfectly for this book.  Several weeks after capsizing, they had to all abandon the deteriorating raft and all stay aboard the small fiberglass dinghy.  Through it all, the family managed to stay as sane, focused, and supportive of each other as can be possible in such a situation.

They should have put the dinghy in a museum!

            Thirty-eight days.  Over a month!  That is how long the Robertson family survived out in the open ocean before being rescued by a Japanese fishing vessel.  Perhaps it is their family connection that allowed them to trust each other and endure.  I have read other accounts of people stranded at sea where the group becomes fractured, and mutual survival is traded for individual survival.  The strength of the Robertson family shines through in this story. 
            Our modern world is an illusion of safety and convenience.  Most people are not prepared or educated in the ways of survival, no matter how many “survival” shows they watch on TV.  It takes real skill and education to keep oneself and others alive when the artificial support structure of society is removed.  Nature does not fuck around.  In the middle of it, humans are as much a target as any other animal.  The weather does not care if you are thirsty or hungry.  The ocean does not care that salt water will poison you.  It is purely through will and perseverance that we can survive to reach civilization again.  Reading stories such as this helps keep me grounded in the true reality of our world, and how much effort has gone into our society so that regular people can be born, raised, educated, live and die mostly without too much trouble from the natural world.  It was not too long ago that all of humanity lived pure survival lives of constant hardship, hunger, pain, and suffering.  It is also not too difficult to ruin everything and leave humanity scraping for life like all other creatures on this planet have to.

(To read an excerpt of this book go here: http://edublogs.misd.net/mrstleon/files/2013/10/Survive-the-Savage-Sea-PDF-q3rsjw.pdf )

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