A Survival Story - Transcript

Listen to the exciting story of survival at sea, against all the odds.

Right click here for the mp3 listening file.


Edward: Have you ever been out on a boat in the middle of a calm lake? Felt the soft breeze in your hair and felt it gently rock your boat. It's difficult to think of anything more relaxing, isn't it? But for my guest tonight on Special People, Jane Walters, being becalmed on any stretch of water in a boat would bring rushing back memories of a terrifying experience she encountered last year in the Pacific Ocean. Jane, am I right in thinking my lake image did not comfort you at all?

Jane: Hi, Edward. No, it pains me still to think of myself out on the water in any type of situation similar to that which you described.

Edward: Could you tell our listeners what happened to you?

Jane: Well, basically, I had crossed the Pacific, west to east and was bound for Panama. A thousand miles west of Panama, my yacht "The Belle Trieste", hit what I can only assume was either a whale or a log floating in the water. It was four o'clock in the morning and I couldn't see a thing.

Edward: So the yacht was holed?

Jane: Oh yes, I started taking on water immediately. You just can't believe the utter panic that grips you in a situation like that. I realized I had about two to three minutes to get off the boat, onto my life raft with as much useful equipment as I could possibly manage. But I made a big mistake.

Edward: Oh?

Jane: I threw into the lifeboat a few extra supplies on top of what was always stored there. You know, the lifeboat is there already stocked up...as a timesaver. I threw in a few extra things but I forgot the most important thing which was my G.P.S. device.

Edward: Now, could you explain what G.P.S. is for our listeners, Jane?

Jane: Yeah, sure...now G.P.S. stands for global positioning system. It uses a network of satellites in orbit around the Earth to pinpoint the exact position of everybody who has a G.P.S. set. Down to a couple of meters, it can know where you are. So it's obviously a really useful tool for people such as sailors, trekkers and the like. If you have it with you!

Edward: I would have thought there would have been a device with G.P.S. in the life raft.

Jane: Ah, yes there was! But I had taken it out two days previously to check something and I had really stupidly forgotten to put it back. It was negligence of the highest order and it almost cost me my life. "The Belle Trieste" sank and took two fully operational G.P.S. devices with her to the bottom of the ocean. And I was left with an 8ft life raft and enough supplies for about a week...which I thought would suffice.

Edward: I can't imagine how terrifying an experience it would be out there, you know, in the middle of nowhere on a small boat. Didn't you feel absolutely powerless, Jane?

Jane: Err, not so much actually. Us sailors are well used to the rigors of being in the middle of nowhere as you put it. I was certainly concerned about the G.P.S. device...I thought things were going to be a lot trickier without that, but I can't say I lost my cool, lost control of the situation. I was pretty calm considering the great danger that I had just been thrust into.

Edward: Right, so you are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a boat little longer than the height of an NBA player. I heard you talk earlier before we came on air about the fact, the rather unfortunate fact, that you had sunk your yacht in the worst possible place in the ocean. I mean, for me, believe me, anywhere further than 50 yards from the beach is the WORST possible place, but I mean you are a sailor with, what?, ten, twenty years experience and yet you knew you had been dealt an unlucky hand.

Jane: I was slap bang in the middle of a huge area of ocean known as the Doldrums.

Edward: Sounds pretty depressing!

Jane: Well, exactly. That's where we get the expression from, you know, "to be in the doldrums". It's a vast expanse of sea around the equator where all the Earth's winds sort of cancel each other out and you can have day upon day of dead calm. The sea resembles a mirror and it can rain continuously for days too. It's a very depressing, draining place to be in. Sailors need wind and if that precious resource is suddenly cut off, you're left feeling totally powerless, becalmed in a frustrating situation you can't do anything about.

Edward: So that heightened the danger for you I take it?

Jane: Well, yes. I knew there were some shipping routes, some cargo shipping lanes way to the north of where I was. But we're talking some hundred and twenty miles. Which I admit, doesn't sound too far, but I was on the oceanic equivalent of a mill pond...and I wasn't about to paddle 120 miles in the seven days for which I had supplies. But, of course, I had to.

Edward: I always thought wind and wave were a sailor's worst enemies and yet you were in a gravely dangerous situation through the lack of these natural forces.

Jane: I was going to starve to death or die of thirst. I had 5 days' worth of food and 6 days' worth of water, if I rationed myself pretty severely. But even at that point, I wasn't too concerned as the Doldrums is famous for its rain too, as well as its lengthy calms and lack of wind. So I have to say, I told myself, "right Jane, at least you'll have enough to drink. It will be the ultimate diet. I'll lose, like, 30 pounds and be able to fit into my graduation dress again." You know, I tried to make light of it all.

Edward: And I suppose your mental state, your psychological fitness if we might call it that, it is crucial in a situation like that, wouldn't you say?

Jane: Oh, without a shadow of a doubt. You need to keep positive, keep thinking that a Panamanian tanker will be the next thing over the horizon, that some Costa Rican coast guard plane was about to fly over me. I would find myself hearing the phantom engines of planes for hours at a time. The mind plays pretty strange tricks on a person in a stressful situation and I was desperate...you know, desperately scanning skies for signs of planes that weren't there.

Edward: At what stage did you start to panic?

Jane: I have to say I began to lose hope after 11 days. My food was pretty much all used up and there had been half an hour of light rain in all that time...absolutely unheard of in the Doldrums. I was by then overdue into Panama by a few days and I knew the authorities would probably have been contacted and that maybe they were looking for me. But I knew I had drifted further south too and was by now perhaps one or two hundred miles from where "The Belle Trieste" had gone down...and ever further from those all important shipping lanes. Yeah, it was after about eleven days that I first began to contemplate the possibility, that hidden doubt that creeps up on you in the dark of the night, that fear that perhaps I wasn't going to get out of this after all.

Edward: I mean what did you do? Did you pray? Did you look back on your life? Did you play through your memories? I can't imagine the sheer dread that must have been coursing through your body at that time.

Jane: You know Edward what I did? I cried a lot. I cried at my own stupidity. I cried for the fact I was going to die in horrible circumstances because I had taken the G.P.S. device out of my life raft. I cried too for the fact that I could precious afford to be crying and wasting what little water I had.

Edward: And then, enter the story, an angel.....

Jane: My angel, my Angelo. Angelo Ortega, brilliant pilot with the Panamanian Coast Guard. He had been looking for me for two days and had returned to the area five times, flying outward spirals from my last known position. When he spotted me, and I was totally oblivious to the fact there was a plane flying a mere 2000ft above me, he had about 4 minutes of flying time left in his fuel tanks and was readying to turn for home. I must have been unconscious or delirious at the time.

Edward: It was a miracle, wasn't it?

Jane: It really was. If he hadn't seen my little boat at exactly that moment, he would have turned for home and another plane would have taken over the search in a different area of the ocean some 15 miles to the west. You know, they've shown me the grid of the area, the map of their search plan. My sector of the ocean, where I was found, they weren't going back to it for another good while, I would have been out there and heading southwards into a huge empty area of ocean that would have seen me clear of the shipping lanes for about three weeks. I would have died. It's as simple as that.

Edward: And they had flown over you once before, I heard?

Jane: I can't believe, there I was scanning the skies for planes that didn't exist and it's now emerged that a pilot flew over me at 6000ft on the seventh day.

Edward: So how were you finally rescued?

Jane: Angelo came down and flew over the life raft at about two hundred feet. Damn near scared the life out of me, I can tell you! I was beyond speechless with joy. It was like winning five lotteries at the same time. Then he flew away and I felt empty, even though I knew inside I was saved. A few hours later, a fishing boat from Costa Rica passed by and they took me on board.

Edward: What's next for you Jane?

Jane: I'm going back to Panama. Let's just say I've made a new friend who works for the Panama Coast Guard....

Edward: ...oh, really? Well this is an unexpected turn to the story.

Jane: Angelo is going to teach me how to fly. He says it's safer than sailing.

Edward: Jane Walters, thank you for your moving story this evening. We wish you all the very best in whatever the future holds for you.

Jane: Thanks, Edward. It's been a pleasure.

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