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Last Voyage of the Lucette - Book Review

by Sally Williams/Sail-World on 23 Aug 2009
Last Voyage of the Lucette SW
Thirty-seven years ago this summer, some fishermen spotted a small dinghy adrift in the Pacific ocean. She was called the Ednamair and measured just 9ft from bow to stern. The fishermen watched the dinghy pitching and rolling in the vast emptiness of the Pacific and assumed that the occupants were long gone. They were nearly 300 miles from land. But they were wrong.

A family of five, plus a friend, were on board. Packed like sardines into every nook, and with the flimsiest of protection, they had spent nearly six weeks stranded in the middle of the ocean with little food and water. Their dream of sailing round the world had gone horribly wrong.

On 27 January, 1971, Dougal Robertson, his wife, Lyn, and their children, Douglas (then 17), Anne, (16) and twins Sandy and Neil (nine), climbed into their yacht Lucette at Falmouth harbour, Cornwall. Eighteen months later – and by now joined by Robin, a hitchhiker, but minus Anne, who had left the boat in the Bahamas – they were 200 miles from the Galápagos islands when catastrophe struck. The Lucette was attacked by killer whales. 'There was a bang! Bang! Bang! And we were lifted off our feet,' recalls Douglas. 'There was a huge splashing noise behind me and I turned round and saw three whales.' It took only minutes for the Lucette to sink.

Bemused, shocked and unprepared – Lyn was still in her nightdress – they scrambled aboard a leaky raft, and then, when that deflated 17 days later, the dinghy. The odds of survival were against them: there was only enough water for 10 days, the only food on board consisted of a bag of onions, a tin of biscuits, 10 oranges, six lemons, and half a pound of glucose sweets. Nobody knew they were missing. They weren't on a shipping route, so their chances of being sighted and rescued were remote. Sinking was a constant worry due to the weight on board and to compound their problems, sharks were circling in the water.

Yet, amazingly, they did survive, and their remarkable story is legendary, inspiring a bestselling book – Survive the Savage Sea by Dougal Robertson – an exhibition and a feature film starring Robert Urich and Ali MacGraw (1992).

But according to Douglas, the real story of the Lucette is still a secret. He says his father's book only covers the days after the shipwreck, and is dry and academic, drawn from the voyage log. The film was only loosely based on what happened – 'They sailed from Australia, not England!' – and while he wrote a book himself, The Last Voyage of the Lucette, in 2005, revealing the whole story, not many people heard about it because its publication was eclipsed by a personal tragedy. Douglas's son, Joshua, 16, had a near fatal motorbike accident in Australia. When Douglas should have been promoting his book, he was by his son's side in intensive care.

One of the great surprises in the new book is that they set off from Falmouth astonishingly unprepared. Dougal was an experienced sailor and Anne had learned the basics, but the children had no experience whatsoever. 'I still can't believe that!' cries Douglas. 'Why didn't we learn to sail in those quiet waters at Falmouth? We went straight into a force 10 gale and it was horrific. I had no idea what to do.'

But then no amount of experience would have prevented the whale attack. 'I'm sure they thought we were a big whale. Maybe it was the shape of the hull or the speed we were moving at,' he says. His most terrifying moment was yet to come – swimming in the water to the raft, after the Lucette went down. 'I'd seen the whales in the water. I thought, 'This is how I'm going to die. I'm going to be eaten alive.'

Once on the raft, he and his father came up with the plan that saved their lives: rather than aiming for land, they decided to aim for water – which meant sailing 400 miles north to the Doldrums.

Life on the raft was grim. 'It got holed when we launched it and that hole got worse. We were sitting with the water up to our chest. We had salt-water sores all over us and the heat would be taken out of your body – it was horrible. We used to take it in turns to sit on the thwart [seat] because it was dry, and my mum, God bless her, would say, 'Doug, you take my turn.' And she'd sit in the water for another hour.' Sleep was impossible, because as soon as they nodded off, their heads would hit the water and they'd jump awake. Lyn was terrified that the twins would drown in their sleep.

The Ednamair, by contrast, was dry but flimsy. 'We were always in danger of being swamped by a wave, and on the 23rd day it rained so heavily we thought we'd lost it. I think Dad was ready to give up. But Mum looked at Dad and held his eyes. Then Dad said, 'Bale for your lives and bale twice as quick as you're doing now.' And we did.'

What kept them going was grit, determination and turtle blood. 'You have to knock it back quickly, otherwise it sets into blancmange,' Douglas explains. Plus it's got an 'aftertaste that makes you want to wretch'. Their mother rubbed turtle oil on the salt-water boils, and tried to keep them all hydrated with makeshift enema tubes made from the rungs of a ladder. 'It was her nursing background. She knew the water at the bottom of the dinghy was poisonous if taken orally because it was a mixture of rain water, blood and turtle offal. But if you take it rectally, the poison doesn't go through the digestive system.'

By the time the Toku Maru, a Japanese fishing boat, rescued them after spotting a distress flare, they were so dehydrated that they hadn't peed for 20 days and had tongues so swollen with thirst that they could hardly speak. 'It was like having our lives given back to us, a pinnacle of contentment never reached again,' says Douglas. When they got to Panama, he celebrated with three rancher's breakfasts of steak, eggs and chips.

After they got back - another voyage on board the MV Port Auckland – the family lived in a caravan on an aunt's farm in the Midlands for six weeks. When Dougal got an advance from his publisher, they moved to a rented cottage. But Douglas says that family life was changed for ever. 'Mum and Dad divorced. They couldn't be together after that.' He says they had terrible arguments on the dinghy.

'My mother's fault I'm afraid,' says Douglas. 'She'd argue about not having electricity at the farm and not having proper running water or shoes for the kids, and Dad didn't need that.'

Dougal bought another yacht and went to live in the Mediterranean. Lyn went back to farming, on a farm bought for £20,000 by Dougal from sales of Survive the Savage Sea.

Douglas believes his parents never stopped loving each other. Dougal died from cancer, aged 67, and for the last three years of his life, Lyn nursed him at their daughter's house. She died aged 75, also from cancer. Douglas went on to join the navy, and then became an accountant. He has five children from two relationships.

'Dad always felt guilty,' concludes Douglas. 'He always said, 'I don't know why I did it. I could have taken you to the Mediterranean – that would have done. I didn't have to take you around the world.' But we would say, 'Dad, we survived! You helped us! We did it!'

The Last Voyage of the Lucette by Douglas Robertson, Seafarer Books, £13.95, or go to the www.guardian.co.uk/bookshop!Guardian_Bookshop_site.
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