Dying of thirst in the Timor Sea

  • Written by  Conrad Humphreys
  • Published in Explorers
During the 4,000-mile voyage, proper water rationing was key, especially when options for landfall were non-existent During the 4,000-mile voyage, proper water rationing was key, especially when options for landfall were non-existent Channel 4
05 Jul
2017
Conrad Humphreys was recently part of the team that re-created Captain Bligh’s 4,000-mile open boat voyage from Tonga to Timor after he was cast adrift during a mutiny on HMS Bounty

We staggered up the beach in a remote part of Timor, our weary legs giving way as each of us collapsed onto the pebbly shoreline. Tears of relief ran down our cheeks as we sat motionless for the first time in over 60 days, taking in our strange surroundings. I felt strangely numb. Looking back out to sea at the tiny 23-foot wooden boat that had been our world since leaving Tonga, I suddenly wanted to be back aboard. Cameras, interviews, people, hassle – surely Captain Bligh didn’t have to contend with this welcome. Or maybe he did? He certainly did not arrive to a hero’s welcome. His men were half-dead and most would die within a few weeks of their arrival.

This was to be our story, a modern day recreation of Bligh’s 4,000-mile open boat voyage from Tofua, where he was cast adrift from HMS Bounty, to Timor, where he skilfully navigated the Bounty’s launch through some of the world’s most remote islands and treacherous reefs.

For Bligh, his only mantra was survival. Cast adrift after a mutiny with enough rations for only a few days sailing, a sextant, some declination tables, a pocket watch and some carpenter’s tools, who knows what was in his mind as he pointed the launch towards Tofua, 35 miles away from where he was dropped? What unfolded was the greatest feat of navigation and survival in British history, although Bligh was not regarded as a hero by his peers.

When I was first approached by Windfall Films to be the professional skipper on board this ambitious recreation, my heart raced at the thought. I’ve never been shy of taking on sailing challenges, but this was at best audacious and extremely reckless at the same time. With a crew made up of mainly non-sailors, it was a cast that would fit the Bligh story perfectly; a handyman in place of a ship’s carpenter, a student doctor in for a surgeon, and a whisky salesman in place of the clerk. To think that we could really pull this off was bold to say the least. Could modern man survive the same fate as Bligh and his men?

explore1Ant Middleton is a former SBS soldier and showed leadership skills necessary for survival (Image: Channel 4)

Many comparisons will be drawn about Bligh and his ability to lead his men to safety. For us, our captain was former SBS soldier, Ant Middleton. Like Bligh he was only 35, but unlike Bligh he was not an experienced sailor. However, Ant did know how to survive and he shouldered the weight of leadership as if he was born to it. When I looked across to him one night as the wind howled and the heavens unleashed a torrent of rain on our shivering crew, he looked at me with a broad grin. It was enough for me to realise that, like in 1789, it was only wind and water and if we kept sailing west we’d eventually arrive.

Bligh also experienced a lot of rain during his voyage which caused great suffering to his men. In the first two weeks of our journey it rained constantly, so much in fact during one 96-hour period it continued without stopping. Rain was the Devil onboard. It sucked morale and as Ant expressed, tapping his head one day, ‘It just gets into your head... tick, tick, tick.’

Without shelter, we would strip as quickly as possible and put on our wet clothes to try and save what dry outfits we had. Not everyone could be bothered with this life preserving routine and before long some of the crew experienced severe shivering and found it difficult to keep warm. Bligh would dance in the boat and his men soaked their clothes in the warmer sea water. We took it in turns to do squats and exercises to try and keep warm.

We had capacity to store 140 litres of water (seven days at our recommended two litres a day per person) in two large 50-litre barrels and four smaller ten-litre barrels. We refilled the barrels on land, where we found natural water sources. On Yadua Island in Fiji, we found a freshwater seep coming out of the ground. In Vanuatu, there had been a drought and the locals drank from a small, stagnant pool. We ran a rolling boil to purify the water, but it still tasted foul and, during the 1,600-mile leg to Restoration Island, one 50-litre barrel smelt sulphurous. We had no choice but to continue to drink from it, but everyone suffered from stomach cramps and diarrhoea.

Bligh stopped a few times along the Cape York peninsula, mainly on the outer lying islands. He stopped at Sunday Island, with the sole purpose of naming it, an act that angered his men as there was neither food or water to be found there. We too made landfall on Sunday Island (also finding no water) and again on Albany, the most northern island off Cape York. Here all we found was an old discarded boat with 100 litres of rainwater in the bilge. We again topped up, but when we left, it was clear that we would need to conserve our supply. We’d be right on the limit with just a litre of water per person per day.

explore2Conrad’s experience at sea was crucial in making the voyage a success (Image: Channel 4)

Progress was good along the northern tip of Australia and we hit some of our best daily runs of the whole trip passing through the Torres Strait and across the Gulf of Carpentaria. The mood aboard was good and confidence in our water situation was high. We passed through a couple of smaller rain squalls, but such was the fear of rain from the crew, no effort was made to collect it. In fact it caused quite a lot of angst, though I briefed everyone that from the earlier climatology study, the weather in the Arafura and Timor Seas would get progressively lighter as the trade winds reduced further to the west. We should expect it to slow up. Still, my briefing fell on deaf ears. Rain was still seen as the Devil!

Water in another of the 50-litre barrels then started to smell very sulphurous and quickly became undrinkable. It meant that we only had around 40 litres of water left with more than 800 miles to go before reaching Timor.

Progress slowed dramatically as we encountered a ridge of high pressure and our daily average dropped from 100 plus miles down to 50. It was obvious that we were going to struggle on the water we had, so Ant took control of the ladles and we reduced our consumption to 600ml per day.

After 48 hours in the sweltering heat (which was melting the camera batteries), I felt that we needed to change our tactics. The high pressure system had intensified over us and I believed from the wind direction and the cloud formations that we were right in the centre of it with no obvious quick way out.

I wanted to do two things, the first was to lighten the boat and chuck anything that was non-essential over the side (which would be collected by the support boat, so we didn’t litter the ocean). The second was that for those of us that were fit enough (not all of us were by this point) we would do a bit of rowing in the night. There were small patches of wind that we needed to get to and with just one person on the oars, enough momentum would be created to generate some apparent wind to keep moving.

However, Ant didn’t agree with my plan. He felt we were all too weak to row and preferred to sit tight, conserve energy and wait for the wind to fill. I understood the need to conserve energy, but I felt strongly that doing nothing was not an option and the only way out of the high pressure was to move towards Timor, however slowly. The crew vote was to wait for the wind. I was pretty angry and for the first time in the voyage found myself disagreeing with our captain. I dreaded that we would run out of water before the wind returned.

Nonetheless, after waiting a further 48 hours we switched to my plan and started to lighten the boat, everything non-essential went overboard. We were down to the last drops of water and it was clear that we would need an intervention or risk dehydration and possible long-term health problems. Everyone was in a terrible state. The lack of water was a serious issue and our capacity to think rationally was going downhill fast.

explore3For the most part, Conrad was sailing with an inexperienced crew using historical equipment (Image: Channel 4)

Our support boat knew we were in trouble and radioed to say that we needed to drink urgently and that they would re-supply us with 20 litres during the next barrel drop. Ultimately, we needed that intervention. I’ve no doubt that without it, we would have experienced severe dehydration and possibly death in the Timor Sea long before arriving at our destination.

Having drunk enough water to rehydrate, we set out to row and soon found ourselves in a strong westward flowing current that was taking us towards the Timor coast. I noted the strength of the current as we passed an oceanic buoy and estimated it to be at least two knots. Land was spotted to the northwest and hopes and dreams of completing the voyage soon filled the boat. The burst of adrenaline and energy that Ant predicted when we saw land spurred us on and soon we spotted wind and the signs of civilisation in the form of fishing boats on the horizon.

In the final hours before making landfall, we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets of the entire trip. We were now in Timor, and on the beach was a small shack selling chocolate and soda. Seven tired and hungry soul mates stepped ashore and wept with joy.

Conrad Humphreys is a professional yachtsman and was the skipper onboard Bounty’s End in the recent Channel 4 re-creation of Captain Bligh’s 4,000-mile open boat voyage from Tonga to Timor. To watch the series, search for Mutiny at www.channel4.com. Humphreys has sailed over 150,000 miles, including three round-the-world yacht races. At the age of 26 he became the youngest winner of the BT Global Challenge and in 2004-5 was the fifth British sailor to complete the Vendée Globe.

  

LESSONS LEARNT

Trust your forecast
The forecast was right and it was all we had to go on once we were cast adrift. I knew it would be tight to pass to the south of Kabara before the winds backed into the southwest and would have preferred more sea room. We could have waited until daylight to pass through the Lau group, but we were limited with both food and water and progress was already slower than planned.

Give clear briefings, knowledge dispels fear
Once a decision was made to attempt to pass through the reefs, it was crucial to brief the whole team and make sure everyone knew what to expect. Involve your crew and listen to their concerns. Allocate roles and mentally rehearse the most likely scenarios. Keep a calm head as fear can be infectious. If crew mates feel empowered, they are more likely to stay calm.

Learn to be self-reliant
This was a historical re-creation of Bligh’s voyage and while we had some modern safety equipment and a support boat that was our safe haven, we tried to stay true to the original story. I had a legal responsibility for the whole crew and a duty of care for their well-being. Being caught out on a lee shore without comms to our support boat and in a dangerous sea state was a situation that I feared the most. It was the one danger which didn’t have a clear protocol. Our safety boat would have been powerless to render assistance, so we needed to be self reliant.

 

TEN OF THE BEST

In attempting to keep things as authentic as possible, Conrad Humphreys was mainly using recreations of the historical equipment that Captain Bligh’s men would have used on the original 4,000-mile voyage. Nonetheless, some provisions to the modern day had to be made, from clothing to emergency communication equipment (satellite coverage being somewhat limited in the 18th century)...

kit 

1. Life jackets

Spinlock Deck Vests – £220; 1.3kg

The complete life jacket harness for all sailors, the 5D has been ergonomically designed to fit comfortably and sit on the shoulders, keeping away from the neck and waist for full freedom of movement. Includes everything sailors require for offshore sailing including sprayhood, red lifting strop, approved life jacket light and award winning bladder illumination lights.

 

2. Lights

Exposure Marine MOB – £180; 116g

The MOB light is a floating personal searchlight with unique Man Overboard Technology (MOBT). It can be taken anywhere, used for everything and re-charged via USB.

 

3. Head torch

Exposure Marine RAW Pro – £120; 43g

The RAW Pro is a waterproof, lightweight, high power, white and red beam head torch. It’s engineered specifically to excel in the harsh marine environment. Unique single-click operation allows quick and easy access to both colour outputs and multiple power modes. A lightweight aluminium casing gives ultimate strength.

 

4. Sextant

Astra IIIB – £520; 1.2kg

A top class metal sextant with crystal clear 3.5x40 telescope and split view mirror collecting ample light for star sights, making sights easier. Three horizon and four index shades permit good sun sights. Has a sturdy aluminium alloy corrosion resistant frame, and a central contoured handle for comfort and stability.

 

5. Knife

Parang Machete – £85+; up to 900g

The parang is a type of machete optimised for cutting through the stronger vegetation found in SE Asia.

 

6. Clothing

Columbia long-sleeved shirt – £35; 240g

Designed to keep you dry, protected and comfortable during long active days in the sun, the Men’s Silver Ridge II Long Sleeve Shirt is a Columbia classic that features quick-wicking material, strategic venting, stretch construction and built-in UPF 50 blocking power.

 

7. Communications

Yellowbrick Tracker YB3 – £399; 303g

The YB3 automatically sends your position, and allows you to send and receive short messages from anywhere on Earth with a clear view of the sky. It works far beyond the reach of wi-fi and GSM networks. It will wake up on a regular basis, obtain a position using the GPS satellite network, and then transmit that position using the Iridium satellite network in seconds. The message is relayed to us from Iridium, and then we visualise the positions on an easy-to-use online map.

 

8. Emergency beacon

EPIRB1 Ocean Signal – £290; 422g

The rescueME EPIRB1 provides peace of mind with an impressive ten-year battery life. The world’s most compact EPIRB can always be on hand, as its small size allows it to be easily retained within its quick release bracket or placed in an emergency grab-bag.

 

9. Food

Basic rations

Basic rations included three biscuits and a handful of South African biltong, giving us around 400 calories per day. Kept us alive...

 

10. Yachting Knife

Various models – from £35

Like a Swiss army knife, the most useful versions also contain a shackle key and marlin spike.

 

DON'T FORGET

… head wear. Adrift in the middle of the ocean, there wasn’t a great deal of shade to protect from the scorching sun. We used Buff head wear items to stop from burning our scalps.

This was published in the July 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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