His role on the South-African owned Sudur Havid involves recording compliance with international fishing regulations, watching for accidentally caught albatrosses, and reporting back to the company, while less official duties include bonding with his crewmates via near-lethal drinking games.
The crew are trawling for ‘toothfish’ (or ‘Chilean sea bass’ to give it its restaurant-friendly name), and while they’re welcoming, the odd warning note is sounded. ‘Some people,’ he’s told, ‘would stab you in the water for a place on a raft.’
Bad omens are noted, including a wounded storm petrel – ‘a bad-weather bird’ – and a brief discussion of the film Titanic. A drowned albatross is thrown overboard.
Even so, the suddenness with which everything goes wrong is extraordinary, as is the peculiar lack of command when the boat takes on water and sinks. One of the life rafts won’t inflate; another is launched with only two people aboard. Lewis finds himself one of seventeen sailors on a twelve-person craft: what follows is a minute-by minute account of the aftermath of disaster, as his friends drown or succumb to exposure.
Lewis adopts novelistic techniques, occasionally adopting viewpoints he can’t possibly have shared or known about, and this undermines any claim his book has to be an accurate document of events; nevertheless, it’s a powerful read.
LAST MAN OFF: A True Story of Disaster and Survival on the Antarctic Seas by Matt Lewis, Viking, £16.99