A LONE SURFER’S SUR­VIVAL STORY

Matthew Bryce spent 32 hours adrift on the ocean – his body tem­per­a­ture was 37 de­grees, while the Ir­ish Sea was 10 de­grees. How did he sur­vive?

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Lorna Sig­gins Marine Cor­re­spon­dent

When Matthew Bryce set out to catch some surf off West­port beach, on Scot­land’s Ar­gyll coast, last Sun­day morn­ing, little did he know that he would be caus­ing his fam­ily such an­guish – and de­priv­ing peo­ple he has never met of sleep.

The 23-year-old, from Air­drie in north La­nark­shire, “had my staff and I de­bat­ing case stud­ies, sta­tis­tics late into the night”, says Ray John­ston of the Na­tional Mar­itime Col­lege of Ire­land (NMCI) .

The surfer was res­cued by the Bri­tish coast­guard’s Prest­wick search and rescue he­li­copter af­ter 32 hours at sea.

From his Belfast hos­pi­tal bed, Bryce has de­scribed how wind and strong cur­rents swept him out, how his pad­dling was “in­ef­fec­tive” but kept him warm, and how he headed for a ship­ping lane af­ter see­ing fish­ing ves­sels in the dis­tance.

He had tried call­ing and wav­ing, but the ves­sels didn’t hear him.

Af­ter two days and one full night at sea, he was watch­ing his sec­ond sun­set and had “pretty much made peace with it all” and thought he was go­ing to die. He cal­cu­lated he had only three hours left when he heard the Bri­tish coast­guard rescue he­li­copter over­head.

“So I jumped off the board . . . I started wav­ing the board in the wa­ter, and they flew right over. I thought they’d missed me. But then they turned round and when I saw them turn it was in­de­scrib­able. I can’t de­scribe it all.”

Some 500ft above him, Capt An­drew Pilliner and crew on the Bri­tish Mar­itime and Coast­guard Agency (MCA) search and rescue he­li­copter from Prest­wick, Glas­gow had been out for five hours.

Fad­ing light

They had re­fu­elled once al­ready, and it was 7.30pm on Mon­day evening with fad­ing light when the co-pi­lot spot­ted some­thing in the wa­ter some 13 miles off the Scot­tish coast – half­way to Rath­lin is­land.

Winch­man Dun­can Tripp says that it re­sem­bled a marker buoy with a flag on it. “We came round again only be­cause that buoy shouldn’t have been in that area,” Tripp says. “And there was a bloke sit­ting on a surf­board.”

Bryce’s pres­ence of mind and abil­ity to wave the surf­board was key, Capt Pilliner says. “When­ever we are search­ing for any­one over wa­ter or over land, any move­ment, any con­trast­ing colour . . . that’s what the hu­man eye is drawn to, and that’s what allowed us to find him.”

Tripp was winched down, placed two strops over Bryce, and gave him a “man hug”.

“He had no buoy­ancy aid as surfers don’t tend to wear them be­cause they will get in the way, and he was in the late stages of hy­pother­mia,” Tripp says.

“We had a bit of a chat on the way up as he re­ally thought he was not go­ing to sur­vive,” Tripp told The Ir­ish Times.

“Dur­ing our search legs, we had talked about how two air­men from Rescue 116 are still miss­ing,” Tripp says. “And we knew the last phone call Bryce made be­fore he went surf­ing was to his mum and dad.”

As many be­reaved fam­i­lies know, the wa­ters around these coast­lines are par­tic­u­larly un­for­giv­ing. A tar­geted shore search has been con­tin­u­ing for the bod­ies of Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby, winch crew on Rescue 116. Al­though they were wear­ing im­mer­sion suits, hopes for their sur­vival in the At­lantic faded within the first cou­ple of days.

“To put the surfer’s sit­u­a­tion into per­spec­tive, the body tem­per­a­ture is 37 de­grees cel­sius, and the Ir­ish Sea at this time of year is around 10 de­grees – so the sea will do its damn­d­est to pull that body tem­per­a­ture down to its level,” John­ston, NMCI ser­vices op­er­a­tions man­ager, says.“To sur­vive im­mer­sion in wa­ter at this tem­per­a­ture for over 30 hours is ex­cep­tion­ally rare.”

‘Pretty re­mark­able’

Ir­ish Wa­ter Safety chief ex­ec­u­tive John Leech says that Bryce’s ex­pe­ri­ence is “pretty re­mark­able” and may have set a record for the north At­lantic. How­ever, two Scots­men wear­ing some sur­vival gear come close. Fife an­glers Bill Hep­burn and John Gowan were 25 hours in the wa­ter, and had the sense to stay with their up­turned angling boat, when they were res­cued by an Ir­ish Coast Guard Dublin-based he­li­copter crew 13 miles north-west of the Isle of Man on Septem­ber 1st, 2003.

Only part of the hull was vis­i­ble above the water­line, and the pair had been sur­viv­ing on some crisps and a banana, when lifted aboard by Ir­ish Coast Guard winch team Derek Everitt and Alan Gal­lagher.

The fact that the Scot­tish surfer wore a heavy neo­prene wet­suit and kept his head cov­ered were key fac­tors in staving off early on­set of hy­pother­mia, Leech says.

“Bryce did the right things – stay­ing with the surf­board be­ing cru­cial,” he says. “Wear­ing a black suit, he would never have been seen on his own, but the bright surf­board saved him.”

Al­though he had bro­ken a golden rule in ad­ven­ture sports – that is: never kayak, sail, pad­dle or surf alone – Leech says it was “fan­tas­tic that he held his nerve”.

“And he comes from a dis­ci­pline with a very good safety record in Ire­land,” he points out.

RNLI area life­sav­ing man­ager Tim Do­ran agrees, say­ing surfers gen­er­ally take to sea in pairs or groups.

“Let­ting some­one know where you are go­ing, and giv­ing an es­ti­mated time of ar­rival back, are very im­por­tant, as with any out­door ac­tiv­ity,” Do­ran says. As life­sav­ing man­ager with re­spon­si­bil­ity for six RNLI lifeboat sta­tions from Malin in Done­gal to Achill in Mayo, he is also a sea­soned surfer.

“Trained life­guards and ex­pe­ri­enced surfers are very aware of rip cur­rents, which re­sem­ble ‘lazy rivers’ but are de­cep­tively rapid move­ments of wa­ter gen­er­ated by wave en­ergy on beaches,” Do­ran ex­plains.

“Cold-wa­ter shock, where the breath­ing rate goes up rapidly, is a se­ri­ous risk fac­tor, be­cause 50 per cent of peo­ple who drown in Bri­tain and Ire­land never in­tended to go near the wa­ter at all, and find them­selves im­mersed with­out wet­suit or buoy­ancy aid or any pro­tec­tive gear,” he says.

Guin­ness World Records has many sta­tis­tics for sur­vival at sea – such as the long­est known time adrift. The cur­rent record was set by Ja­panese cap­tain Oguri Ju­kichi and one of his sailors, Oto­kichi, af­ter their ship was dam­aged in a storm off the Ja­panese coast in Oc­to­ber 1813. They spent 484 days in the Pa­cific be­fore be­ing res­cued by an Amer­ica ship off Cal­i­for­nia on March 24th, 1815.

Com­ing close to this is Sal­vador Al­varenga, a 36-year-old fish­er­man from El Sal­vador, who left the coast of Mex­ico in a small boat with a young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced crew­mate, Eze­quiel Cór­doba, in Novem­ber, 2012. Both were caught in a storm, which swept them out to sea.

Al­varenga sur­vived for 438 days, and was washed ashore on the Mar­shall Is­lands in the Pa­cific. His es­ti­mated drift is be­tween 5,500 to 6,700 miles (8,900 to 10,800km) from his home har­bour.

Sued the sur­vivor

His crew­man was not so for­tu­nate, and Al­varenga said he buried him at sea some six days af­ter he died. Af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of a book on Al­varenga’s ex­pe­ri­ence by jour­nal­ist Jonathan Franklin in 2015, the fam­ily of Eze­quiel Cór­doba sued the sur­vivor for one mil­lion dol­lars, claim­ing he ate his crew­man. Al­varenga’s lawyer has de­nied this claim.

Sports psy­chol­o­gist Ni­amh Flynn, based at the Gal­way Clinic, says that Al­varenga demon­strated “an in­ter­nal lo­cus of con­trol and an abil­ity to take re­spon­si­bil­ity” which many suc­cess­ful ath­letes also share.

Al­varenga said he had con­tem­plated sui­cide af­ter his crew­man’s death, but de­cided against it as his mother had assured him that those who kill them­selves would never go to heaven.

“Our be­lief sys­tems in­flu­ence our thoughts, which then in­flu­ence our be­hav­iours, and in Al­varenga’s case it was one fac­tor which drove him on to keep fight­ing to stay alive,” Flynn says, not­ing that “some­times fear can be a use­ful ally”.

“How the brain ad­justs to ex­treme sit­u­a­tions is based on one’s life ex­pe­ri­ences, one’s be­lief sys­tems, and the mean­ing or pur­pose one has in mind for one’s life at that point.” Those who be­lieve in so­lu­tions are more likely to be able to fo­cus their mind in ex­treme sit­u­a­tions, she says.

Bryce has said he will never surf again. His ex­pe­ri­ence will in­form train­ing in sea sur­vival, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts in this field – who also note that wet­suit man­u­fac­tur­ers may be very keen to find out what brand he was wear­ing.

“Had he been with­out pro­tec­tive cloth­ing, he could have lost dex­ter­ity in as little as 10 to 15 min­utes,” says John­ston, who pro­vides sea sur­vival train­ing for the mar­itime and oil and gas in­dus­tries at the Na­tional Mar­itime Col­lege of Ire­land in Rin­gask­iddy, Cork har­bour. “He would have been ex­hausted and lost con­scious­ness in one to two hours, and his ex­pected sur­vival time could be as short as one to two hours.”

“Air tem­per­a­ture at night would also have dropped to sin­gle fig­ures, and he was also ex­posed to “wave slap”, which could in­tro­duce wa­ter into the air­way and cause drown­ing,” John­ston ex­plains.

‘Man­ual dex­ter­ity’

“What’s re­ally re­mark­able is that he main­tained man­ual dex­ter­ity,” he says. “When the hands and mus­cles of the arm cool, strength is sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced and in ex­treme cases by up to 80 per cent, mak­ing cling­ing to a surf­board ex­cep­tion­ally chal­leng­ing,” he says.

John­ston also says that the he­li­copter winch crew de­serve par­tic­u­lar plau­dits. “Peo­ple who have been in the wa­ter for a pro­longed time have phys­i­o­log­i­cally ad­justed to con­stant wa­ter pres­sure on the body – known as hy­dro­static squeeze,”he ex­plains.

“If re­cov­ered ver­ti­cally and rapidly, this can cause faint­ing or a car­diac ar­rest due to the loss of this hy­dro­static as­sis­tance to the cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem,” he says. “Hence a hor­i­zon­tal re­cov­ery is pre­ferred.”

“The next chal­lenge is to ef­fect a very gen­tle re­warm­ing – as gen­tle as breath­ing into a per­son’s face. The last thing you do in that sit­u­a­tion is to rub ex­trem­i­ties, and brandy is also not ad­vis­able,” John­ston says.

John­ston says Bryce “ob­vi­ously has a strong sur­vival in­stinct”. “Bear Grylls would be suit­ably im­pressed.”

Res­cued surfer Matthew Bryce, and the surf­board which kept him afloat for more than 32 hours as he drifted in the ocean

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