Tourists in fight for life

CHARLOTTE SQUIRE
Last updated 12:58 19/08/2014
Tony Lawton,  and Gaylene Wilkinson
STARTING OUT: Tony Lawton, and Gaylene Wilkinson, right, relax at the beginning of their six-week holiday with sister-in-law Sharmilla Wilkinson.

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In a scene that wouldn't have been out of place in the TV series Survivor, a Golden Bay couple were forced to drink their own urine to stay alive on an island.

Former Golden Bay High School physical education teacher Gaylene Wilkinson and partner Tony Lawton, who survived 18 hours at sea after the boat they were on sunk in Indonesian waters, had been on a six-week holiday including scuba diving and cycling.

They took a three-day boat trip with other travellers between Lombok, a popular tourist destination, to Komodo Island, home of the Komodo dragon, when it sank in the Flores Sea.

Lawton and Wilkinson, who both have experience in search and rescue, were among a group of 20 foreign tourists who spent 10 hours clinging to the upturned boat.

"The boat was wooden, so didn't completely sink for 11 hours, so we crammed onto the roof awaiting rescue, but nobody came. This started at 1.30am. When the boat was too dangerous to stay on, we had just a dinghy that could hold six people. Indonesia!!," she wrote in an email to family.

They waited for rescue, but no-one came so they, with eight others, decided to swim to a near-by volcanic island through "quite big seas", which the Flores Sea is known for.

The group was split up in the water into smaller clusters and over the course of six to eight hours all made it to the uninhabited island and its active, lava spitting, volcano.

The group had lifejackets on, which Wilkinson was grateful for.

Wilkinson said the volcanic island was extremely dry and the survivors drank their own urine to rehydrate .

"When we arrived on shore we'd already been in the water for 18 hours and we just needed a drink, so you do what you do," she said.

Two groups of five were then picked up by a passing fisherman and a dive boat.

Another 13 survivors, who did not swim to the island, clung to an overcrowded lifeboat before they were eventually picked up by fishermen.

"Wow, they looked after us so well. We are all fine, nobody with hypothermia, just quite badly burnt from being on the water in hot sun for so long," said Wilkinson.

The couple emailed family and friends to tell them they had survived the ordeal yesterday.

Golden Bay friend Pema Parigot said initial news reports about the sinking mentioned Wilkinson but not Lawton, so the email was a relief. "My heart had been in my throat, now I am celebrating."

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In Nelson, Wilkinson's mother Ngaire Wilkinson did not realise the boat had sunk until the couple had been rescued so was spared an anxious waiting period.

Ngaire said today after an intense survival experience and a flurry of media attention the couple had gone for some peaceful rest and recovery.

She said her daughter was a strong swimmer and adventurous - taking after her mother.

The two had climbed Mt Arthur together, but Ngaire's sense of adventure stopped with the sea while Gaylene was a kayaker and both she and Lawton were comfortable with boats.

As a former PE and outdoor education teacher at Golden Bay High School, Wilkinson's mother said, her daughter lived for the mountains and hills and was involved with search and rescue.

Golden Bay High School principal Roger File said: "If I was in a situation like that and needed someone to rely on, I can't think of anyone better."

Ngaire Wilkinson said she and the whole family were relieved they were safe.

The semi-retired couple, who have land in Golden Bay, are expected back in Nelson at the end of the month, but Ngaire said she was unsure if they would change their plans.

It is suspected that the boat hit a reef before it began to sink.

Wilkinson said the conditions had been rough and dark leading up to the incident.

"There was no chart, no navigation equipment, no GPS, no depth sounder, so we hit a reef," she said.

Rescuers are still looking for two tourists who are missing.

- The Nelson Mail

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