How I Survived a Shipwreck

I am an adventurous cabin attendant. When I am on holiday, I like to mix culture and exploring the unknown. But on my last holiday, in Indonesia, I got more excitement than I asked for. The boat I was sailing on sank. Thanks at least in part to my flight safety training, I survived for more than 40 hours at sea. Here are a few valuable lessons that you can always use—whether on land, at sea, or in the air.

schip foto Els VisserPhoto: Els Visser

Tip 1: Use What You’ve Got

High waves had put the engine room underwater. We were in open sea, far from the coast. There was no communication or emergency equipment. We could only hope to get a signal on our mobile phones. We had no flares, so clothing would have to serve as torches. And still, no help came. The crew pulled down the four-person supply sloop—with no engine—from the roof. Planks would have to serve as paddles. There was no food or drink at hand.

Tip 2: Stay Calm

The 25-metre boat was beyond saving. We would have to get into the water. A few of the passengers started to panic. The five crewmembers provided no instructions to the passengers, so I took the leadership upon myself. I instructed the 19 passengers about how to use the life vests and I showed them positions they could use to stay warm and visible in the water. I handed out snorkelling equipment and checked the available exits. The window openings were one option and I freed up the doors. The sense of calm that I was able to radiate helped to calm the people around me.

Tip 3: Make Preparations and Rely on Them

A gigantic wave pulled everyone through the windows and out into the sea. Thanks to my preparations—and some luck—the sloop lay just outside my door, ready to board. I was in a perfect position to pull people out of the water and into the boat, and to call everyone together. It took just a couple of minutes.

Bootramp, Wilbert houd vast aan sloepje. Foto Bertrand HomasselStill from the film by Bertrand Homassel

Tip 4: Have a Plan B Ready (and a Plan A!)

Make sure you have a Plan B to fall back on, but think clearly about your Plan A.
Our Plan A: The ship had not sunk. The stern deck was still above water, but was sinking slowly. Should we stay here? Or, Plan B: Should we swim for at least eight hours to a volcanic island in the strong current?

What was the lesser of two evils? But, before starting our swim, we took a few hours at the ship to think about the possibilities. We collected anything usable, discussed the options, and equipped ourselves before taking off. Only then did we leave

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Tip 5: Remain Positive

Very soon, the group split in two. Many started swimming as hard as they could towards the island. I was convinced that the boat would save us. Six of us were in the boat (looking something like a sweeper truck) behind the swimmers. And, in so doing, we managed to save seven exhausted swimmers. However, all of this pushed us off course. It can be hard to remain positive when a situation goes from bad to worse. We were exhausted. Some of us were hurt. Even so, we kept paddling, we kept encouraging each other, and we kept thinking of home. All of that kept us going. After forty hours at sea, we were saved.

Bootramp, sloepje bij scheepswrak. Foto Bertrand HomasselStill from the film by Bertrand Homassel

Book presentation Schipbreuk in het paradijs

This blog is a repost of October 2014. Today, two years after the shipwreck, Wilbert’s book ‘Schipbreuk in het paradijs’ will be presented. In his book he has incorporated his experiences.

Posted by:   Wilbert van Haneghem  | 
Join the conversation Show comments

Tom Parrett

Interesting survival story. It raises so many questions. Were all 24 rescued? Yes, calm emotions are essential to clear thinking in an emergency — easily said, hard to achieve. Guess I’ll have to see the movie or read the book for answers.

Paul Swart

Wow, what a story! All read in 2 minutes and I truely want to read the book.
I’d like to say to Wilbert is: “Well done. Good to see that your training at KLM is helpful beyond your professional life!” If anything happens during my travels I do hope someone is present with similar skills and experience. I for one would be stressed and probably not as calm as would help myswlf and others…


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