Seven in the sea

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Drama in Real Life


When their flimsy boat overturned, the men faced a ter­rible choice: should the strongest try to save themselves or stay with their weaker comrades and share equally in a gamble with death?


ON A DEEP black sea, under the stars of a tropic sky, seven men cling to a swamped and slowly sinking boat. Desperately, despairingly, they kick in unison, trying to propel their craft towards the shadow of land on the night horizon. Fierce currents fight them; again and again the tide tugs them off shore.

The seven share a certain knowledge: if they all stick together, they have an equal chance to survive - or drown. If they split, however, each going it alone, one or two of the stronger swimmers might make it to safety. But most will certainly drown. Or worse. For they are not alone in these reef-ridden Fijian waters. The gliding shadow of a shark lurks in the dim depths. The men try to pretend that it isn't there. But it is. And maybe, soon, there will be more. With fear thick in their salt-swollen throats, the seven kick. And kick.

No one could have been better prepared for the ordeal of that night than Graeme Coote, a short, muscular, 27-year-old New Zealander. A schoolboy swimming champion, he had also been a member of a top surf lifesaving club in his native country and was skilled in the arts of survival at sea. He knew the Pacific, too. For months he had roamed its coral-girt tropical islands as a crewman on a yacht. Now, settled into an insurance job in balmy Suva, he spent most of his spare time adventuring with a spear-gun among the islands and reefs of Fiji.

With Graeme that night was his companion of many a fishing expedition, his friend Fritz Bower, an athletic 28-year-old of mixed Fijian and European blood. Fanatical about the sea, the stocky, 95-kilo Fritz was something of a legend in Suva for his daring and underwater prowess.

At first, that weekend in March 1974 was like many others Graeme and Fritz had spent together. With three schoolteachers from Tailevu, about 38 kilometres from Suva - a New Zealander, an American and a Canadian - and two Fijian friends, they planned to fish a submerged coral outcrop called Horseshoe Reef, off Fiji's main island of Viti Levu. Fritz knew it well "A paradise of a place," he promised Graeme. "Full of fish and turtles."

Graeme had his first qualms when he saw the boat which was to take the seven men into the capricious Pacific. Only about four metres long, it was little more than a crudely built dinghy with a makeshift cabin. But he stifled his dismay. The sea was calm, bright and inviting. He did not want to seem a spoilsport.

They were quick into the water, and once they reached the reef the day became pure joy. The sunlit sea was flooded with the colours of coral, and swarms of brilliant fish exploded everywhere they swam. The hours sped past; Graeme found it difficult to remember a day so spectacular.
Long, Violent Shudder. Around 4 p.m., though, sharks, excited by the smell of fish and blood, started to make a nuisance of themselves. One charged Graeme and he drove it off only by smashing it across the gills with his spear-gun. Time to call it quits. Their catch stashed, they set out for home. All were cheerful, laughing, sated with sun and sea and satisfied by the successful hunt.

Their little boat's outboard motor had taken the seven men perhaps a kilometre clear of the reef when a huge wave slammed over the bow. The forward hatch had been care­lessly left open in the haste of their departure, and the boat, already perilously low in the sea with its load of fish and men, suddenly started taking in water by the tonne. "Grab your gear," Fritz shouted, and they snatched up flippers, masks and snorkels. In a matter of moments it was all over. With a long violent shudder, the little craft tipped suddenly on its side and flung the men into the sea.

They clung desperately to the rolling hull. There was no mistaking the menace in their situation. Viti Levu's safe green shore was still remote on the horizon, at least a dozen kilometres away. Graeme was suddenly conscious that he was the only single man in the group; the others were all married with children. Fritz, for example, was father of two, and his wife Lily was waiting to give birth to twins any day now.

"Let's swim back to the reef," someone shouted above the babble of voices.

"No," Fritz, Graeme and others argued, "the tide's too strong." And no one really needed reminding of the sharks on the reef.

Argument exploded; men tried to roar one another down. From his experience as a lifesaver, Graeme knew that panic could kill. "Shut up, all of you," he bellowed. "We'll each talk in turn."

But even one at a time, men still talked unrealistically, out of shock. "Let's all swim to the mainland," two urged. Swim? They had just one lifejacket among seven. That was all the boat had carried, in casual Fijian style. Bickering began again.

Fritz intervened. "The first thing is to stay with the boat," he insisted. "And stay together. Together we've got a chance. Alone, we've only got our individual strength - with the sharks and tides ready to take us."

Why not, Fritz proposed, try to push the swamped boat back to shore? Even submerged, it was something to grip, to keep them together. Graeme supported this suggestion. It had to be all for one, one for all - or disaster.
Legs in Unison. Action subdued panic. They cleaned out the remainder of their catch from the hull, then laboriously wiped down every part of it, to rid the boat of all trace and taint of fish, anything that might tempt the sharks. Next, they righted the boat by some of them standing on its keel while others pushed from beneath.

When the craft was finally upright, they quickly jettisoned the heavy outboard motor and jammed empty petrol tanks and drink coolers into the cockpit area for buoyancy. Only the top of the cabin showed above water at the moment - but this wallowing hulk was still their best hope of survival.

Two men took places on each side of the boat and three moved to propel it from the rear. Fritz instructed that nobody was to break the surface with feet or flippers; this would bring the sharks in. The seven must keep their legs working in unison. With any luck, a shark would be scared by a large object with 14 legs moving together.

Within an hour Viti Levu seemed perceptibly closer, and they were all still moving strongly in the water. But what the men did not realize was that the current was carrying them parallel with Viti Levu's shore. Parts of the coast were closer; but it was a passing coast.

The quick tropical dusk came, then dark. "Let's all get back into the boat," someone said. "We'll be safe there." Fritz would not hear of it. "We'll get home tonight," he promised.

The truth was that Fritz feared they might drift too far from land in the dark, out of range of search parties. He also knew it was important to keep his companions moving as a team, believing in survival.
Simple Secret. With darkness, came fresh hazard - human exhaustion. Cramp seized one of the school teachers; paralysis even invaded his throat muscles and he was speechless. The others helped him into the hull of the boat, wearing the single lifejacket, and he sat there with his head just above water. Now they were six against the sea.

"Come on," Fritz urged. "Keep moving."

All were now fighting a grim private battle with their bodies. There was no release, no respite. Again and again they seemed only a few hundred metres offshore, with fires and even figures visible. But the-tide, with a confusion of currents, tugged them tantalizingly in and out. "Just another hour," said Fritz. But the hour went by; and then another. The lights went out offshore, the fires faded. In the dark Fritz began to think again of sharks slashing suddenly out of the deep. With quiet voice he began checking regularly, to see no one was lost.
There was more desperate talk of swimming for shore, of each man's taking his chances alone. But Fritz and Graeme argued, "We're in this together. One of us is now certain to drown on his own." They indicated the figure of the schoolteacher huddled in the hull.

If others flagged, Fritz's effort became the more herculean. His secret was simple: whenever he weakened, he thought of his family, of Lily waiting. Nor, with Fiji's communal society vivid in his background, could he consider striking off alone and leaving his companions. Life was a team business; it had to be to make any sense.

"There's a shark down there!" one man shouted. Others looked down - was that a pale underbelly glimmering in the sea below? Fear made their weakened bodies work steadily again. But soon two were near collapse, their legs weakly fluttering. Fritz was frightened that they might lose all will, drift away and drown quietly in the dark.
Underwater Rowing. So at near 3 a.m., after ten hours of unbroken effort, they all slid one by one into the nearly submerged hull of the boat. There they collapsed, half sitting, half floating, heads just above water. But with the collective effort temporarily ended, their confidence ebbed fast. All were suffering from exposure now. One of them began shouting vehemently that the boat had to be abandoned and that they must swim for it. Graeme and Fritz, who had by far the best chance of individual survival, continued to argue most strongly for team effort.

Somewhere in the early hours, before sunrise, with Viti Levu still shrunken on the horizon, they gave themselves aching and shivering to the sea again. Fritz had an inspi­ration, a use for the boat's two oars. Improvising rowlocks with rope, they lashed the oars to the gunwales. Two men sat in the boat, neck-high in the sea, and rowed - underwater.

Before long, however, cramp hit two more men and they had to rest in the hull. Now there were only three to swim and push from the rear. And their boat had started to founder. By 8 a.m. there could be no doubt; it was gradually sinking. As well, they were fast using up the coast of Viti Levu. Before long only one extremity of land was left. Beyond that was the open Pacific.

By now, search parties were out looking for them. But, imagining a motor breakdown, they were searching around Horseshoe Reef and to the south of Tailevu.

The tropical sun began to rise in the sky. The men felt their lips cracking open, their tongues swelling. Another man crawled helpless into the hull. Only Graeme and Fritz were left pushing.

They had been struggling in the water for 15 hours. The collective effort, which had seemed the wisest thing, might now mean they were collectively doomed. Graeme felt doubt as his flesh flagged; the more effort he exerted, the less chance he would have to save himself at the end. Should he not try to conserve his energy?

But Fritz, as committed to the group as ever, was an unflagging inspiration. Graeme was awed by his friend's strength of will; he could not let such a man down. Often Fritz seemed to be pushing the craft singlehanded through the sea. Graeme found himself trying to keep pace.

Raw Flesh. Endurance suddenly had its reward. Nothing substantial: a thin rod, a reef marker, a tenuous last hope, rose slowly from the sea between them and the last of Vitu Levu. The sight of that marker, indicator of a reef ahead, brought wild shouting. If they could gain the reef and lash the boat to the marker they might be able to bail their craft out, get it entirely afloat again. They might survive together after all.

"Let's put everything into it for an hour," Fritz said. "We're going to make it for sure, so let's keep at it." And the boat, even though sinking, surged through the sea with their great gust of new energy.

Suddenly, wonderfully, they were there, against the reef, leaping on rock in shallow water, tying up the boat. Fritz found some clams, split them open and passed the tough raw flesh around as salty sustenance. For a while they relaxed in ecstatic exhaustion. However, another three or four kilometres of water had still to be crossed and the bailed-out boat was clearly falling to pieces, its stern about to break away.

When they resumed their effort at 9 a.m., only three men were in fit condition to propel the boat: Fritz, Graeme and one faltering Fijian. The other four were helpless, falling into delirious sleep. Once again, Fritz urged the others on: "We must try harder. Keep on and don't stop."

Before long the third man collapsed. Now Fritz and Graeme, the two who had argued for collective survival in the first place, had to accomplish it alone.

Working an oar, Fritz set the pace. His fresh fanaticism fired Graeme too. An hour passed; and another. Soon, both knew, the tide would change, ebbing away from land. If they did not make the shore before that, their 18-hour struggle across at least 20 kilometres of sea would all be for nothing. The Pacific would surely finish them off. Both men bent to their oars, heads down, sagging. Graeme was beyond pain, almost beyond the world. Yet still he worked mechanically.

Suddenly, Graeme heard Fritz shouting, "Look! Look!"

Graeme looked up and saw tall coconut trees. A village. Fijian children returning from church in their white Sunday best. And a dignified old man waiting to welcome them, in the formal Fijian way, on a beach of pale coral sand.

No nightmare ever had gentler end. Their boat, creaking and cracking, nudged the beach. And Graeme, four kilos lighter than when he last walked land, staggered ashore with the others.

"We heard about you on our radio," said the old man. "But we didn't think you would ever arrive here." "Nor did we," one of the seven responded.
IT WOULD be months before Graeme Coote gave himself wholeheartedly to the Pacific again. By then the confusion and anguish of his ordeal had settled into something solid in his mind. In a situation where tragedy seemed certain, seven men had survived by acting as one, the strong giving strength to the weak. Had they elected for each to take his chance alone, all might have lost the battle with the sea, weak and strong alike.

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