Magazine article Geographical

Dying of Thirst: In the Timor Sea

Magazine article Geographical

Dying of Thirst: In the Timor Sea

Article excerpt

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHANNEL 4

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We staggered up the beach in a remote part of Timor, our weary legs giving way as each of us collapsed onto the pebbly shoreline. Tears of relief ran down our cheeks as we sat motionless for the first time in over 60 days, taking in our strange surroundings. I felt strangely numb. Looking back out to sea at the tiny 23-foot wooden boat that had been our world since leaving Tonga, I suddenly wanted to be back aboard. Cameras, interviews, people, hassle - surely Captain Bligh didn't have to contend with this welcome. Or maybe he did? He certainly did not arrive to a hero's welcome. His men were half-dead and most would die within a few weeks of their arrival.

This was to be our story, a modern day recreation of Bligh's 4,000-mile open boat voyage from Tofua, where he was cast adrift from HMS Bounty, to Timor, where he skilfully navigated the Bounty's launch through some of the world's most remote islands and treacherous reefs.

For Bligh, his only mantra was survival. Cast adrift after a mutiny with enough rations for only a few days sailing, a sextant, some declination tables, a pocket watch and some carpenter's tools, who knows what was in his mind as he pointed the launch towards Tofua, 35 miles away from where he was dropped? What unfolded was the greatest feat of navigation and survival in British history, although Bligh was not regarded as a hero by his peers.

When I was first approached by Windfall Films to be the professional skipper on board this ambitious recreation, my heart raced at the thought. I've never been shy of taking on sailing challenges, but this was at best audacious and extremely reckless at the same time. With a crew made up of mainly non-sailors, it was a cast that would fit the Bligh story perfectly; a handyman in place of a ship's carpenter, a student doctor in for a surgeon, and a whisky salesman in place of the clerk. To think that we could really pull this off was bold to say the least. Could modern man survive the same fate as Bligh and his men?

Many comparisons will be drawn about Bligh and his ability to lead his men to safety. For us, our captain was former SBS soldier. Ant Middleton. Like Bligh he was only 35, but unlike Bligh he was not an experienced sailor. However, Ant did know how to survive and he shouldered the weight of leadership as if he was born to it. When I looked across to him one night as the wind howled and the heavens unleashed a torrent of rain on our shivering crew, he looked at me with a broad grin. It was enough for me to realise that, like in 1789, it was only wind and water and if we kept sailing west we'd eventually arrive.

Bligh also experienced a lot of rain during his voyage which caused great suffering to his men. In the first two weeks of our journey it rained constantly, so much in fact during one 96-hour period it continued without stopping. Rain was the Devil onboard. It sucked morale and as Ant expressed, tapping his head one day, 'It just gets into your head...tick, tick, tick.'

Without shelter, we would strip as quickly as possible and put on our wet clothes to try and save what dry outfits we had. Not everyone could be bothered with this life preserving routine and before long some of the crew experienced severe shivering and found it difficult to keep warm. Bligh would dance in the boat and his men soaked their clothes in the warmer sea water. We took it in turns to do squats and exercises to try and keep warm.

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We had capacity to store 140 litres of water (seven days at our recommended two litres a day per person) in two large 50-litre barrels and four smaller ten-litre barrels. We refilled the barrels on land, where we found natural water sources. On Yadua Island in Fiji, we found a freshwater seep coming out of the ground. In Vanuatu, there had been a drought and the locals drank from a small, stagnant pool. …

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