It might sound like a fantasy story from a classic adventure novel, but this happened to the Robertson family. Fifty years ago, the family boarded a yacht and had no idea of the events that would unfold during their round-the-world voyage. When they were rescued by a Japanese fishing boat, their story made global headlines.
It was the perfect story to attract millions of peoples’ attention, between killer whales, sharks, and a family stranded at sea. The family survived 37 days in a nine-foot dinghy with little freshwater or food supplies. The tale of their survival reveals the extremes the human body can endure. Continue reading to see how this family floated on the open ocean and lived to tell their story.
On January 27, 1971, Dougal Robertson, his wife, Lyn, and their children, Douglas, Anne, and twins Sandy and Neil, climbed into their yacht at Falmouth harbor, Cornwall, UK, and set sail. Douglas wanted to expose his children to the world because they lived isolated lives on a dairy farm. Therefore, they took their life savings and purchased the boat after selling the farm.
Douglas didn’t have a plan for the journey, and they didn’t have a practice sail before taking off, but it didn’t matter. As they pulled away from the harbor, the whole family was excited for the voyage of a lifetime. Over the next year and a half, they sailed across the Atlantic, stopping at various Caribbean ports.
The family was learning about different cultures and enjoying themselves along the way. Around 17 months into their journey, they were joined by a hitchhiker named Robin, and their daughter Anne left the boat in the Bahamas. At this point, they were 200-miles off the coast of the Galapagos Islands, and everything seemed great.
Douglas always remembered his dad at the wheel stamping his foot, yelling, “Yee-haa.” His father was living the dream, but as a wave broke across the bow and cold water sprayed onto their faces, they knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. However, their trip was about to become a nightmare as they ran into some unfriendly sea creatures.
Just two days into a 40-day leg to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, the family was about 200-miles off the coast of the Galapagos Islands. Some members of the family were sleeping below deck, having kept watch through the night. As the morning coffee was brewing and the family settled into their daily routine, something strange occurred.
Douglas was in the cockpit with his younger brother Sandy when he saw the triangular fin of a killer whale. He pulled in the fishing line, and there was a big squid on the end. Douglas said to his brother, “There’ll be some big fish around here because where there’s squid, there are whales.” And then came the loud bang.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Three impacts in a row lifted the 43 ft. schooner into the air, and everyone was thrown off their feet. The whole boat shook, and they heard a loud crack, which only meant one thing; the piece of wood that runs the entire length of the boat had snapped. It was like the sound of a tree trunk being snapped in two.
Behind them, they heard a splashing noise and saw three killer whales following the boat. As Douglas called to his father below, the boat was already filling with water. Although wild killer whales are not considered a threat to humans, Douglas thought they would be eaten alive. They had to make a plan and fast because the ship was going down.
The family, plus the hitchhiker, scrambled on board an inflatable raft and dinghy. Although it was a 10-man raft, it could only fit five people comfortably. There were bellows to keep it inflated, but they broke after a few goes, so Dougal had to blow it up with his mouth. They had problems from the moment the ship went down.
Lyn collected the emergency supplies as the ship sank, and Dougal fired up the radio to send an SOS. However, it took a couple of minutes for the radio to warm up, and the boat sank before he could send out a call. Shocked and scared, Lyn was still in her nightdress when they boarded the raft.
Douglas was thrown into the water as the boat went under, and he thought the whales would attack. He kept feeling his legs to see if he still had them because he heard that you don’t feel the bite; you just know your legs are gone. As he felt his legs, he said, “Well, at least I’ve still got my legs.”
As they all climbed onto the raft, it floated just beneath the surface of the water because there were too many people on it. It was unusable, so the seven of them had to squeeze onto the six-person dinghy, in which they would have to survive adrift on the ocean.
The Robertson family had to think quickly if they wanted to survive. They weren’t near a shipping route, so it was unlikely anyone would find them. They weren’t in any immediate harm as they got on the dinghy, so they decided to head north, closer to the equator, into an area known as the doldrums.
This part of the sea is where the northern and southern trade winds collide. It is known for its calm water and lack of surface wind, which would improve their chances of survival. They made a plan to row to the middle of the Pacific, store water, and then row to America carried on a current.
When they went through their emergency supplies, they only had enough water for ten days, a bag of onions, a tin of biscuits, ten oranges, six lemons, and half a pound of glucose sweets. No one knew that they were missing, they worried about sinking because of the weight on board, and sharks circled.
They had to catch rainwater and hunt turtles and fish to survive, or else they would have run out of food. It wasn’t their first choice, but they didn’t want to die. On the sixth day of floating, their luck changed when a ship passed just three miles away. They fired flares, but the ship never turned towards them.
A voyage across the open ocean for this length of time would not be easy. They would need food, and fortunately, the Pacific Ocean has plenty to eat. The Robertsons caught flying fish and sea turtles, drying them in the sun to preserve them. Also, by the third week of floating, their clothes were rotting away.
Although there was plenty of protein, they needed more water. Douglas said the family reduced their diets to a single piece of meat three times and three or four sips of water each day. Getting enough liquids was the real challenge especially sitting under the hot sun all day.
The Robertsons had collected 18 pints of rainwater, but for 37 days, it would not be enough. After 24 hours, if you deny yourself water, the body goes into conservation mode, only requiring 400 ml per day compared to the regular 1.5 liters needed. You also can’t drink seawater, which was all that was around them.
When they got to the doldrums, there wasn’t any rain to collect. They waited for three days, and nothing came. Their solution was to drink the blood of the sea turtles they caught. It became an essential source of fluid for them. These conditions took a toll on their bodies. Douglas only went to the bathroom once during the entire time.
When deprived of water in this way, the body starts to do strange things. When they would handle a turtle and accidentally cut themselves, they wouldn’t bleed. The body is good at sacrificing extremities to maintain heart, lung, and brain function. The blood wasn’t flowing like normal.
Lyn, who had some medical training, was concerned by the family’s lack of excretion, suggesting they give themselves enemas. This was a technique used by the British SAS. It wasn’t pretty, but they had to survive. Luckily on the fourth day in the doldrums, it started to rain, and they were overjoyed.
Although they needed the rain for drinking water, it soon became a problem. They had to bail out the dinghy, so it wouldn’t constantly flood, taking shifts at night, eventually collapsing of exhaustion. On their 21st day of floating, they spotted the Northern Star and calculated that they had traveled 420 miles.
The family was drinking fish spinal fluid and eating their eyes for a bit of liquid and vitamin C. Douglas recalls liking the experience of popping fisheyes out because they brought a bit of relief when he was thirsty. Despite having more water to drink, they didn’t know if they would ever be rescued.
On their 38th day adrift, they spotted a second ship. Dougal lit their last flare and held it until it burned his hand. On July 23, 1972, a ship finally turned in their direction. The family was spotted by a Japanese fishing boat, and the crew curiously asked if they wanted to be rescued.
The crew sent down a rope, and it was the first realization that they were safe. The first thing Douglas asked for was coffee. The idea was fantastic, but they couldn’t drink it because of the state their bodies were in. They were in much worse shape than they thought, and they needed blood transfusions.
The Japanese fishing boat brought them to Panama, where the British Embassy put them in a hotel. It was here that Douglas could fully experience the joy of ordering what he wanted. He chose three servings of steak and eggs from the hotel restaurant, which made him violently ill.
Douglas said that they reached a pinnacle of contentment that they would never reach again in their lives. They went down to the market too and saw turtles being butchered, but they looked at it with different eyes. The Robertsons thought, “Well, it’s not like our turtle steaks; they were straight off the bone.”
For almost 38 days, the Robertsons floated on the Pacific before their rescue. Going through that was extreme, and Douglas said he never regretted the trip, even in their darkest hours. They were adrift for five weeks, but it took 20 years to get over.
After the ordeal, Lyn and Dougal divorced. The whole thing strained their marriage, and it was hard for them to get over the harrowing experience. They had endured so much, and being trapped on a tiny ship created arguments between the family.
Before Dougal passed away from cancer, he wrote a book about the family’s experience after the wreck. However, his son Douglas said he failed to add everything that happened on their voyage before the killer whales came. Therefore, Douglas wrote a book of his own to tell the entire story.
One of the many things his father didn’t include in the book was that Douglas was the muscle on the boat, and his father was the brains. He said his dad couldn’t have done all the heavy stuff without him, and everyone contributed to the survival of the raft, but no one was recognized for it.
Douglas’s book charts the family’s transition from farmers to sailors and the 18 months at sea before the wreck. He talks about how his dad had a short temper. If any of the children stepped out of line, they got a beating.
Douglas was punched in the face when the pots fell out of the cabinet even though they were put away correctly. However, Douglas got his revenge. As they were headed for Jamaica, his father almost washed overboard after being hit on the head by the boom. Douglas saved his father and made him promise never to hit him again.
As his father hung from the side of the boat, Douglas grabbed onto his legs and said, “Promise you’ll never hit me again, ever, or so help me I’ll dump you over the side right now.” It seemed that his father almost learned a lesson because he didn’t beat him after that.
Douglas also recalled a male nurse they met in Miami who would sexually abuse him, and he was mad that his father didn’t protect him. His mother didn’t want to listen either when he told her what the man did. His mother said, “Don’t give me a burden to take to my grave.”
Although his father did terrible things, Douglas didn’t hate him. He admired his sense of adventure. He said his father was courageous, and they would never have gotten home without him. Douglas said, “He is human, and he made mistakes.”
Douglas’s brother, Neil, said that he is much gentler than their father. It was also Neil’s idea to sail around the world. He said to their father, “Why can’t we sail around the world like the yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston?” Dougal leaped at the opportunity, and Douglas was just as excited because they shared that passion.
One of the biggest surprises was that the Robertsons set sail without any preparation. Although Dougal was an experienced sailor and his daughter Anne learned the basics, everyone else had zero experience. They actually almost died while leaving the harbor. They should have practiced on calm water.
The family went straight into a force ten gale as they left the harbor, which was horrific. They had no idea how to handle it, and that could have been the beginning and the end of the trip in less than a day. However, no amount of experience could have prepared them for the catastrophe.
Although the rest of the family felt unprepared for their voyage on the boat, Dougal had been a master mariner in east Asia but gave it up after meeting his wife, Lyn, in Hong Kong. However, the family’s survival was because of what they learned as farmers. Until Douglas was ten, they didn’t have running water or electricity.
The Robertsons didn’t have a TV set, just paraffin lamps, and candles. They didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford shoes for the children. Dougal was frustrated because his brothers and sisters sent their children to private school and university, but he couldn’t provide that for his family.
Although Dougal jumped at the opportunity to sail around the world, Lyn was hesitant. She was aware of the dangers and considered the risks. They argued about it, but it was an escape for Dougal. Lyn hoped it would be a passing phase, but then they sold the farm, and everything became real.
Douglas believes his father’s anger was caused because he was so frustrated with his life as a farmer. When they got on the boat, and things didn’t go smoothly, his father’s anger bubbled over because he just wanted to have something go according to plan in his life.
As soon as the Robertsons launched the emergency raft into the water, it got holes in it, and they only got worse. They were sitting in water up to their chests, which caused saltwater sores all over their bodies. There was only one dry spot, and they would take turns sitting there.
Sleep was impossible as they were sitting in the water. As soon as anyone nods off, their head would be underwater. Lyn was afraid the twins would drown in their sleep. However, they had the dingy, which was dry but cramped and flimsy. When the holes on the raft couldn’t be fixed anymore, they switched to the dinghy.
While the dinghy was dry in contrast to the raft, it was flimsy, and they were always in danger of being swamped by a wave. Douglas recalled that on the 23rd day, it rained so heavily that they thought they lost the dinghy. At that point, his father was ready to give up, but Lyn wouldn’t let him.
The Robertsons kept going with grit, determination, and turtle blood. Their mother had to rub turtle oil on their saltwater boils and kept them hydrated with makeshift enema tubes from the rungs of a ladder. When they were rescued, they hadn’t peed for 20 days, and their tongues were so swollen they could barely speak.
After they were rescued and returned home, another voyage began aboard the MV Port Auckland. The family lived in a caravan on their aunt’s farm for six weeks. When Dougal got an advance from his publisher, they moved into a rented cottage. However, the family was changed forever.
The fights Lyn and Dougal had on the dinghy broke their marriage. Lyn would argue about not having electricity on the farm and not having proper running water or shoes for the children. Dougal didn’t need that when he was trying to keep the family alive and get them to safety.
After Dougal and Lyn divorced, Dougal surprisingly bought another yacht and went to live in the Mediterranean. Lyn decided to go back to farming and bought a farm for £20,000 with the sales from Dougal’s book, Survive the Savage Sea. Although they weren’t together, they never stopped loving each other.
Douglas believes his parents never stopped loving each other. When Dougal died of cancer at 67, Lyn nursed him for the last three years of his life at their daughter’s house. Lyn later died of cancer as well when she was 75. Douglas went on to join the Navy and became an accountant.
In 1992, Dougal’s book, Survive the Savage Sea, was turned into a movie, but the details were only loosely based on what he wrote. All their names were changed, and the details of their exact trip weren’t the same. Douglas Robertson was actually upset about the movie.
Douglas said it was a poorly made film that changed the details of what his father wrote. The film starred Robert Urich and Ali MacGraw, but it got a relatively low rating. Douglas ended up writing his own book because he didn’t think his father told the entire story.
Floating on the open ocean can make anyone go crazy, so the family had to keep themselves busy. They divided up the tasks. While Dougal oversaw fishing and catching turtles, Lyn took care of the “house.” She encouraged everyone to keep their hygiene, exercise, write to friends, and draw pictures on pieces of sailcloth.
The Robertsons invented games, and these activities kept them busy and distracted from the perils of their situation. More importantly, daily routines provided structure and a semblance of organized life and helped them avoid the anxiety that would have made the ordeal harder.
Dougal’s book came out in 1973, and the information he wrote about how they survived was used by another person stranded on the Atlantic. In 1981, Steven Callahan left Newport, Rhode Island, on a 21 ft. boat he built. He single-handedly sailed to Bermuda and England to pick up his friend.
Callahan took part in a race from England to Antigua but dropped out because bad weather sunk many boats and damaged his. He stopped in Spain to make repairs and continued on his journey down the coast of Spain. One night in the middle of a storm, he collided with a whale, and his boat started to flood from the damage.
As his boat sunk, Callahan could get onto an inflatable life raft and grab emergency supplies, including Dougal Robertson’s Sea Survival manual. He survived on fish, barnacles, and birds that he captured as he floated across the ocean. He routinely exercised, navigated, prioritized problems, and built food and water stocks.
With the help of Dougal’s book, he survived 76 days adrift on the ocean until a fisherman rescued him. He faced many of the same problems as the Robertsons throughout his voyage, but he was alone while seven people were on the Robertsons’ raft.
When artists Nina Katchadoirian was young, her mother read her the story of the Robertson family in Dougal’s Survive the Savage Sea. She would read the book once a year and was enthralled by their journey. During the pandemic, she was inspired to create her story: an art project made over 38 days to mirror their voyage.
She created sculptures, paintings, videos, audio tracks, and a series of rhythmic sketches of ocean waves to understand the sea and how it changes. Katchadorian said it was like a daily journal. She added that the way everyone lived in isolation during the pandemic resembles the Robertsons’ story.
The boat that saved the Robertson family was also saved when the Japanese ship found the family. The little boat called Ednamair is now on display at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall, England. Although it is a reminder of a harrowing experience, it is an inspiration for survival.
Douglas occasionally goes to visit the boat because it reminds him of his strength and what his family endured. While some people would never want to see that boat again, it helps him. It must be hard to look at the dinghy and remember what happened and how it broke his family.
When the idea of sailing around the world was presented to Dougal, he jumped at the opportunity without giving it any thought. After the tragedy, he regretted his decision. He always wanted his family to have more than their poor life on the dairy farm but wished they hadn’t gone through that experience.
Dougal told his son he should have just taken them to the Mediterranean instead of around the world because it would have been just as fun and safer. However, Douglas told his father, “Dad, we survived! You helped us! We did it.” His father punched sharks in the face, and he was proud of that.
Because there were days when they felt like they wouldn’t survive, the Robertson family tried to imagine what their lives would be like if they returned home. They thought about getting a cat or opening a restaurant. This planning helped them psychologically.
Many times, people manage to survive by planning projects. Any idea, even a utopian one, can help a person’s mental state in these situations. By keeping themselves busy, they didn’t let their mental states deteriorate. Dougal even hid his thoughts about death to keep their spirits high.
When Dougal was in the Navy, he had been sunk by the Japanese near Sri Lanka during World War II. It obviously made him angry, and he held a grudge against them for many years. Therefore, when a Japanese ship picked them up and saved their lives, it was interesting.
After all those years, Dougal forgave the Japanese because they were the ones who helped him when he was in need. He said, “If for no other reason than to be able to forgive the Japanese for what had happened, the trip was worth it. “