A lone surfer’s survival story during 32 hours at sea
Matthew Bryce’s body temperature was 37 degrees. The Irish Sea was 10 degrees. How did he survive?
When Matthew Bryce set out to catch some surf off Westport beach, on Scotland’s Argyll coast, last Sunday morning, little did he know that he would be causing his family such anguish – and depriving people he has never met of sleep.
The 23-year-old, from Airdrie in north Lanarkshire, “had my staff and I debating case studies, statistics late into the night”, says Ray Johnston of the National Maritime College of Ireland (NMCI) .
The surfer was rescued by the British coastguard’s Prestwick search and rescue helicopter after 32 hours at sea.
From his Belfast hospital bed, Bryce has described how wind and strong currents swept him out, how his paddling was “ineffective” but kept him warm, and how he headed for a shipping lane after seeing fishing vessels in the distance.
He had tried calling and waving, but the vessels didn’t hear him.
After two days and one full night at sea, he was watching his second sunset and had “pretty much made peace with it all” and thought he was going to die. He calculated he had only three hours left when he heard the British coastguard rescue helicopter overhead.
“So I jumped off the board . . . I started waving the board in the water, and they flew right over. I thought they’d missed me. But then they turned round and when I saw them turn it was indescribable. I can’t describe it all.”
Some 500ft above him, Capt Andrew Pilliner and crew on the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) search and rescue helicopter from Prestwick, Glasgow had been out for five hours.
They had refuelled once already, and it was 7.30pm on Monday evening with fading light when the co-pilot spotted something in the water some 13 miles off the Scottish coast – halfway to Rathlin island.
Winchman Duncan Tripp says that it resembled a marker buoy with a flag on it. “We came round gain only because that buoy shouldn’t have been in that area,” Tripp says. “And there was a bloke sitting on a surfboard.”
Bryce’s presence of mind and ability to wave the surfboard was key, Capt Pilliner says. “Whenever we are searching for anyone over water or over land, any movement, any contrasting colour . . . that’s what the human eye is drawn to, and that’s what allowed us to find him.”
Tripp was winched down, placed two strops over Bryce, and gave him a “man hug”.
“He had no buoyancy aid as surfers don’t tend to wear them because they will get in the way, and he was in the late stages of hypothermia,” Tripp says.
“We had a bit of a chat on the way up as he really thought he was not going to survive,” Tripp told The Irish Times.
“During our search legs, we had talked about how two airmen from Rescue 116 are still missing,” Tripp says. “And we knew the last phone call Bryce made before he went surfing was to his mum and dad.”
As many bereaved families know, the waters around these coastlines are particularly unforgiving. A targeted shore search has been continuing for the bodies of Ciaran Smith and Paul Ormsby, winch crew on Rescue 116. Although they were wearing immersion suits, hopes for their survival in the Atlantic had faded within the first couple of days.
“To put the surfer’s situation into perspective, the body temperature is 37 degrees celsius, and the Irish Sea at this time of year is around 10 degrees celsius – so the sea will do its damndest to pull that body temperature down to its level,” Johnston, NMCI services operations manager, says.
“ To survive immersion in water at this temperature for over 30 hours is exceptionally rare,” he says.
Irish Water Safety chief executive John Leech says that Bryce’s experience is “pretty remarkable” and may have set a record for the north Atlantic. However, two Scotsmen wearing some survival gear come close.
Fife anglers Bill Hepburn and John Gowan were 25 hours in the water, and had the sense to stay with their upturned angling boat, when they were rescued by an Irish Coast Guard Dublin-based helicopter crew 13 miles north-west of the Isle of Man on September 1st, 2003.
Only part of the hull was visible above the waterline, and the pair had been surviving on some crisps and a banana, when lifted aboard by Irish Coast Guard winch team Derek Everitt and Alan Gallagher.
The fact that the Scottish surfer wore a heavy neoprene wetsuit and kept his head covered were key factors in staving off early onset of hypothermia, Leech says.
“Bryce did the right things – staying with the surfboard being crucial,” he says. “Wearing a black suit, he would never have been seen on his own, but the white surfboard saved him.”
Although he had broken a golden rule in adventure sports – that is: never kayak, sail, paddle or surf alone – Leech says it was “fantastic that he held his nerve”.
“And he comes from a discipline with a very good safety record in Ireland,” he points out.
RNLI area lifesaving manager Tim Doran agrees, saying surfers generally take to sea in pairs or groups.
“Letting someone know where you are going, and giving an estimated time of arrival back, are very important, as with any outdoor activity,” Doran says. As lifesaving manager with responsibility for six RNLI lifeboat stations from Malin in Donegal to Achill in Mayo, he is also a seasoned surfer.
“Trained lifeguards and experienced surfers are very aware of rip currents, which resemble ‘lazy rivers’ but are deceptively rapid movements of water generated by wave energy on beaches,” Doran explains.
“Cold-water shock, where the breathing rate goes up rapidly, is a serious risk factor, because 50 per cent of people who drown in Britain and Ireland never intended to go near the water at all, and find themselves immersed without wetsuit or buoyancy aid or any protective gear,” he says.
Guinness World Records has many statistics for survival at sea – such as the longest known time adrift. The current record was set by Japanese captain Oguri Jukichi and one of his sailors, Otokichi, after their ship was damaged in a storm off the Japanese coast in October 1813. They spent 484 days in the Pacific before being rescued by an America ship off California on March 24th, 1815.
Coming close to this is Salvador Alvarenga, a 36-year-old fisherman from El Salvador, who left the coast of Mexico in a small boat with a young and inexperienced crewmate, Ezequiel Córdoba, in November, 2012. Both were caught in a storm, which swept them out to sea.
How the brain adjusts to extreme situations is based on one’s life experiences, one’s belief systems, and the meaning or purpose one has in mind for one’s life
Alvarenga survived for 438 days, and was washed ashore on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. His estimated drift is between 5,500 to 6,700 miles (8,900 to 10,800km) from his home harbour.
His crewman was not so fortunate, and Alvarenga said he buried him at sea some six days after he died. After the publication of a book on Alvarenga’s experience by journalist Jonathan Franklin in 2015, the family of Ezequiel Córdoba sued the survivor for one million dollars, claiming he ate his crewman. Alvarenga’s lawyer has denied this claim.
Sports psychologist Niamh Flynn, based at the Galway Clinic, says that Alvarenga demonstrated “an internal locus of control and an ability to take responsibility” which many successful athletes also share.
Alvarenga said he had contemplated suicide after his crewman’s death, but decided against it as his mother had assured him that those who kill themselves would never go to heaven.
“Our belief systems influence our thoughts, which then influence our behaviours, and in Alvarenga’s case it was one factor which drove him on to keep fighting to stay alive,” Flynn says, noting that “sometimes fear can be a useful ally”.
“How the brain adjusts to extreme situations is based on one’s life experiences, one’s belief systems, and the meaning or purpose one has in mind for one’s life at that point,” she explains.
Had he been without protective clothing, he could have lost dexterity in as little as 10 to 15 minutes. He would have been exhausted and lost consciousness in one to two hours
Those who believe in solutions are more likely to be able to focus their mind in extreme situations, she says.
Bryce has said he will never surf again. His experience will inform training in sea survival, according to experts in this field – who also note that wetsuit manufacturers may be very keen to find out what brand he was wearing.
“Had he been without protective clothing, he could have lost dexterity in as little as 10 to 15 minutes,” says Johnston, who provides sea survival for the maritime and oil and gas industries at the National Maritime College of Ireland in Ringaskiddy, Cork harbour.
“He would have been exhausted and lost consciousness in one to two hours, and his expected survival time could be as short as one to two hours,” he says.
“Air temperature at night would also have dropped to single figures, and he was also exposed to “wave slap”, which could introduce water into the airway and cause drowning,” Johnston explains.
“What’s really remarkable is that he maintained manual dexterity,” he says. “When the hands and muscles of the arm cool, strength is significantly reduced and in extreme cases by up to 80 per cent, making clinging to a surfboard exceptionally challenging,” he says.
Johnston also says that the helicopter winch crew deserve particular plaudits. “People who have been in the water for a prolonged time have physiologically adjusted to constant water pressure on the body – known as hydrostatic squeeze,”he explains.
“If recovered vertically and rapidly, this can cause fainting or a cardiac arrest due to the loss of this hydrostatic assistance to the circulatory system,” he says. “Hence a horizontal recovery is preferred.”
“The next challenge is to effect a very gentle rewarming – as gentle as breathing into a person’s face. The last thing you do in that situation is to rub extremities, and brandy is also not advisable,” Johnston says.
Johnston says Bryce “obviously has a strong survival instinct”.
“Bear Grylls would be suitably impressed.”