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Monday, March 03, 2008

Australian Fishermen Swims for Twelve Hours to Get Help

Did you read the report from Australia at the end of February about the fisherman who swam 12 hours to get help for two crew mates who were left bobbing on a cooler-lid nine miles from shore? The three were dragging for shrimp when their net got hung up on bottom. The hang rolled the boat and sank it within minutes. The guy who swam to shore made it to a beach and collapsed. He was found in an exhausted state but his heroic effort sparked a search that brought rescue teams to the scene of the accident. A second crewman was found and airlifted to safety. He had been in the water a total of 30 hours. The third crewman, the captain, was in a weakened state due to cancer treatment; he had drifted away from the cooler-lid and drowned.

The BBC story mentioned that all three fishermen were experienced mariners. Far be it from me to speculate and second guess these poor souls, but I find this statement inadequate. Why did the one crewman choose to violate the three basic survival principles (stay with the vessel or as close as possible to where the vessel sank, stay together, and don’t try to swim to shore) by attempting a nine-mile swim alone?

The answer, I think, is pretty obvious:

There was no mayday sent out, and nobody else had any idea where they were. The boat sank fast and the crew had no flares or means of attracting attention. They were virtually treading water, aided by a piece of flotsam that couldn’t support the three of them.

Holding onto their cooler and swimming together as a group would have increased their chances of being spotted. It tripled their visible footprint in the water and tripled their lookout capability. They would have had the added advantage of three against one, and they could have help each other out and defended against predators together. Two men have a better chance to survive than one. Three have a better chance than two, as long as they all work together.

But this didn’t happen, and I suspect it was a matter of the strongest man choosing between treading water and swimming to shore. Basically, he let the two weaker crewmembers have the only means of flotation, meager as it was.

I have no doubt this man’s act was a heroic one. He beat the odds and the elements, and enabled the rescue of his crewmate, whom more than likely would have died otherwise. And maybe, despite the basics, the decision for one man to swim to shore alone was the crews’ best chance at survival. Clearly, it was a combination of iron will and pure luck.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be prepared than have to count on luck. As Abraham Lincoln once said: "If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four sharpening the axe."


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