Photo: Ingvar Kenne

Holy cow! I just read this story of 3 teenagers lost at sea for 51 days off the coast of Tokelau and am just amazed at the human spirit’s will to survive. The story is a long read and definitely makes you pause and think about how dangerous the open sea is despite its beauty.

Despite the obvious comments one can make about how stupid it is to set off into the ocean and just assume somebody is going to come rescue you (that’s what these kids thought), one part of the story that stuck out to me was the summarization of past incredible survival stories of people lost at sea. These other people survived because they had the supplies to fish — one thing that sets these folks apart from the 3 teens (the 3 teenagers did not bring any fishing gear with them).

From the section in the article about other survivors of the sea:

There have been, over the centuries, several incredible stories of survival at sea. Most recently, in August of 2006, three Mexican fishermen were picked up in a fiberglass boat after an astounding 285-day drift across the Pacific—an all-time record, in terms of days, by quite a margin. I researched dozens of these survival tales. And the more I read, the more I realized that almost no one experienced a harder trip than the Tokelauans. Perhaps only the survivors of the whaleship Essex had it worse. In 1820 twenty men abandoned the Essex, which had been rammed by a whale, and sailed for three months. They resorted to cannibalism. Only eight survived.

The key to staying alive, as evidenced by nearly every tale, is the ability to fish. The record-setting Mexicans had an array of jerry-rigged fishing gear, along with piles of warm clothing and containers capable of holding fifty gallons of rainwater. They caught hundreds of fish. They barely lost weight.

Poon Lim, the record holder before the Mexicans, was a Chinese castaway from a British merchant ship torpedoed in the Atlantic in 1942. He fashioned a small fishing hook from a flashlight wire and a larger one from a bent nail and proceeded to catch enough fish that he was able to walk off his lifeboat unaided after 133 days. Maurice and Maralyn Bailey drifted for 118 days in 1973 but had piles of canned food (braised steak, spaghetti bolognese) as well as a stove, books, and a deck of cards. They caught dozens of fish and turtles. Steven Callahan, who in 1982 survived seventy-six days, had two solar stills to convert seawater to freshwater and a speargun with which he caught several enormous dorados. Seven years later, Bill and Simonne Butler drifted for sixty-six days but had fishing gear, a set of dominoes, canned food, blankets, a radio, and seven bottles of Evian. They once tossed fifty pounds of fish overboard because they didn’t like the taste.

Hopefully this story is a lesson to others about getting drunk and venturing out into sea in a stolen boat. Read the whole story here. Print it out, hang it up. Frame it in your boat if you’ve got one.