One oar, a canvas bag and two sponges

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Two men survive 11 days in a life raft with no supplies after the yacht they were delivering sinks

Two men survive 11 days in a life raft with no supplies after the yacht they were delivering sinks

An Australian skipper and his New Zealander first mate drank their own urine to stay alive while spending 11 days in a storm-battered life raft with no supplies after the yacht they were delivering sank in the South China Sea.

Adrift for what they guess was about 600 miles, the men — dehydrated, exhausted and on the brink of losing hope — were rescued by Vietnamese fishermen and taken to a medical facility on the island of Ly Son, about 30 miles off central Vietnam.

“It was the worst experience of my life,” says first mate Stephen Freeman, who is 30 and now lives in Queensland, Australia, in an interview with Soundings. “I lost a good amount of weight, about [27 pounds]. It was willpower that kept us going, mate. We are both thankful to be alive.” Freeman and the skipper, Mark Smith, 49, of Hobart, Tasmania, were hired by an Australian businessman to bring a 65-foot motoryacht he had purchased from Hong Kong to Sydney, Australia. The pair, both commercial fishermen, set off Dec. 5 in good conditions but began experiencing problems within the first 24 hours.

 

“The wind kicked up to about 20 to 25 knots, and the seas were about [10 feet],” says Freeman. “We were about [120 miles] off China when we started having engine troubles. I think it was the gearbox on the starboard engine. Anyway, she was hard to steer in that weather, so we decided it’d be best to turn back for Hong Kong.”

But Freeman and Smith didn’t get far. The boat began taking on water — either through a crack in the hull or through the shaft on the starboard engine, Freeman says — and started to sink. “We got the supplies ready, got the record books from the cabin, and got in the life raft,” he says. “We had fresh water to last us about 15 days and enough food to last us about a week. From the raft, we watched as the boat sank. It all happened so fast, in about 60 seconds or so.”

Having brought along their supplies, Freeman and Smith were confident that they’d be rescued within a couple of days. Within minutes, however, a wave hit the raft, and the men and the supplies were in the water. “It was unbelievable bad luck,” Freeman says. “All of our food and water and our flares and radio were gone. All we had left was one oar, a canvas bag and two sponges. That’s when the drama really started.”

Freeman and Smith got caught in a series of late-season tropical storms that capsized their raft a number of times. Other than bailing water, there wasn’t much they could do but wait. One topic of conversation in the first couple of days was how they didn’t have an EPIRB on the yacht. “Yeah, we argued a bit about that,” Freeman recalls. “We were given enough money to buy one, but we didn’t. It was a bad decision. Otherwise, we talked about normal stuff, I guess. Mostly we were concerned with staying on the raft.”

Without food, flares, water or a radio, Freeman says he and Smith felt helpless. “In the first couple nights we saw some boats pass us, but in the dark they couldn’t see us,” he says. “During the day we didn’t see any boats. It was disheartening. After three days of that we really started to panic.”

Freeman and Smith knew they had to hydrate themselves to survive, so they made the decision to drink small amounts their own urine. “I didn’t want to do it but knew I needed to get some kind of fluid in me, you know,” Freeman explains. “I’d suck it out of my hand, get a few good gulps of fluid back in my system, gagging. Mark couldn’t really stomach it.”

They ate nothing during the 11 days; they tried unsuccessfully at one point to stun a school of small fish with their oar.

Freeman and Smith were able to drink fresh water when it rained on the seventh day. “It came down pretty solid for a little more than an hour,” Freeman says. “The sponges came in handy. We drank rainwater from the sponges and licked it off the sides of the raft.”

But the rain stopped, and the men again were faced with the improbability of being rescued. “Things were pretty grim there for while, I’d say,” Freeman admits. “We were worried about the other one being swept away, and talked about what we’d do if one of us died. We tried keeping our spirits up by talking about our families. Mark has a big family and thought a lot about seeing them at Christmas. That’s what kept him going. I looked forward to seeing my family again, too.”

It wasn’t until about 4 p.m. on the 11th day that the weary men regained hope; they were able to make out two islands in the distance. “We saw buildings on the larger island and knew people must be there,” Freeman says. “We both screamed and started rowing like mad with our oar and with our hands.”

Before the men made it to the island they were spotted by the crew of a small Vietnamese fishing boat. “We started screaming even louder to make sure they saw us,” Freeman says. “We were thrilled.”

The crew took them to nearby Ly Son island, where they were transported to a medical facility and treated for five days. Their families were contacted about their location and physical condition.

“I hadn’t heard from Mark in days and was dreadfully worried,” says Smith’s ex-wife, Sue Smith, in a Soundings interview. “I didn’t know if he was gone — had drowned, you know — or was still alive. When I got the phone call I was very pleased. It took a lot of pressure off of me.”

Although poor weather delayed Freeman and Smith’s departure for mainland Vietnam for a couple days, the men eventually made it there, boarded a plane in Hanoi then landed in Sydney Dec. 28, where they were greeted by family and friends.

“It was brilliant good to be back,” Freeman says. “To get off that plane and see my sister made me the happiest I’d been since I left Hong Kong.”

Freeman, who has since returned to New Zealand to spend time with his family, says that despite the ordeal he and Smith aren’t afraid of returning to the sea.

“It was one of those one-off things,” Freeman says. “I might be wary of getting on a yacht like that one again, but I love the sea. I expect to be on the water again soon.”