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Of all the environments on earth, what’s the most difficult to survive in? The open ocean is easily near the top of the list, especially if you’re facing it alone and with limited resources. Unless you brought it with you, there’s no shelter from the elements, no means of making a fire to stay warm, and most importantly no readily-accessible drinking water. You’re totally exposed to wind, rain, waves, the harsh sun, and predators, and it’s difficult for rescuers to spot you . The absolute worst-case scenario is to be up against all this without even a raft to float on, and that’s the exact scenario one diver faced off the coast of New Zealand. His story was recounted in a 2017 article in the Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine Journal, and there are some lessons this situation can teach us about survival at sea.
In February 2006, Robert Hewitt was diving for crayfish 500 meters off the coast of Mana Island near Cook Strait, the 14-mile-wide strait that separates the main two islands of New Zealand. Hewitt was an experienced Navy diver, so after his dive buddy had to surface prematurely near the end of the day, he continued to dive alone rather than cutting his trip short and returning to the host boat immediately.
While pursuing a crayfish, Hewitt inadvertently swam into a strong rip current that carried him far away from the boat. By the time he made it back to the surface, he could barely see the vessel. He was stranded in open water with no way to signal for rescue or swim back to shore, and the current was swiftly carrying him out to sea. The crew contacted the coast guard as soon as they noticed he was gone, but he would remain in the water for a grueling 75 hours before rescuers found him.
The water temperature was a chilly 61°F (16°C), so Hewitt was wearing a custom-fitted 5mm wetsuit with hood and gloves. He had no drinking water, but was able to eat a crayfish and some sea urchins, foods which are high in water content. When it rained, he removed his mask to catch small amounts of moisture. To limit loss of body heat, he curled his body into the fetal position, also known as the heat escape lessening posture (HELP). However, by the time he was rescued he was nearly hypothermic and hallucinating from severe dehydration. On one especially horrifying note, the study reports that his body was also “covered with sea lice feeding on his macerated skin.”
Hewitt’s substantial experience as a diver helped him stay calm enough to take the aforementioned steps to slow his rate of dehydration and core heat loss. His fitted wetsuit aided in withstanding the cold somewhat, but his 220-pound build and years of physical conditioning in cold water were also key factors in why he survived as long as he did. Perhaps most importantly, he kept his mind active and stayed positive, reciting prayers and making mental lists of all the things he wanted to do once he made it back to shore. The Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine Journal article concluded that “a combination of his experience, physical characteristics, equipment, actions, psychology and luck helped him to survive.”
On the other hand, Hewitt’s experience may have contributed to the disaster by making him overconfident in his safety. Looking back at the situation, local authorities felt that his decision to dive alone rather than joining another dive team or surfacing immediately “almost contributed to his own demise.” This is an important lesson for us all — no matter how much time you’ve spent in an environment, always have plans to signal for rescue and don’t allow yourself to be lulled into the dangerous it’ll never happen to me mindset.
The following dramatization from I Shouldn’t Be Alive includes footage of Hewitt recounting the events that unfolded in 2006: