Couple used 'Kiwi' skills to survive

03:47, Aug 25 2014
Ngaire Wilkinson
HOME SAFE: Ngaire Wilkinson hugs her daughter Gaylene Wilkinson at Nelson Airport on her return from Indonesia when the boat Gaylene and her partner Tony Lawton, were travelling on sank.

A Golden Bay couple drew on their outdoor survival skills to endure a six-hour swim from a sinking boat and being stranded on a remote island with a rumbling volcano.

"I think there was a bit of the Kiwi thing there - we just grow up with the outdoors don't we?", said Gaylene Wilkinson after she and Tony Lawton returned home at the weekend.

They were greeted in a tearful embrace at Nelson Airport by Wilkinson's mother Ngaire.

The pair survived a harrowing 18 hours in Indonesian waters after the tourist boat they were on with 23 others sank on a trip between Lombok and Komodo Island early last week.

With only a six-seater dinghy as a lifeboat, most passengers and crew awaited rescue by sitting on top of the sinking wooden boat.

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At one point in the middle of the night the tourists were washed off the boat with "quite big waves" and were just clinging to the dinghy.

They could hear the crew still on the wooden boat.

Wilkinson said they needed to get everybody and the dinghy back to the boat.

"The longer we stay with the boat the better chances of our survival. We stay with the boat until we can't stay with it," she said.

After 12 hours no help had come and Wilkinson and Lawton along with some others decided to swim five kilometres to the nearest island.

They were separated in the water as Wilkinson partnered up with a Dutch woman and Lawton was with two English women.

Wilkinson's partner was a "strong swimmer, but very, very light" and was scared of becoming hypothermic so they "went for it".

They got to the island first and Wilkinson estimated the swim took about 6 hours.

"I was aware that we needed to preserve our energy. We all had lifejackets on. For a lot of the time we just had huddled, arms crossed while on our back using breaststroke kicking survival stokes - I did side stroke a lot because that's my strongest survival stroke."

She said there were moments when large waves separated her from seeing her swimming partner.

Lawton was swimming with two English girls who were not strong swimmers so he was supporting them and making sure they got to the island together. They arrived at a different spot on the island after about eight hours.

"We didn't know each other was safe for a long time," Wilkinson said.

"Tony would maybe have ended [up] 10 kilometres around the island from me. We had no idea he was picked up by a completely different boat by local fisherman."

She said getting to the island was just the first step of survival and once there it was about water and hoping an active volcano on it did not erupt.

"All night it was really dramatic. It was spewing smoke and you can see the fire of the lava coming," she said.

It had erupted "big time" four months earlier and all the villagers had been evacuated.

There was no water to be found, but there was rubbish and by the time they were rescued they had used what debris they could find to "get quite organised".

Wilkinson drank her own urine from a discarded plastic bottle, found mismatched jandals that made it easier to walk on the rough, volcanic landscape and fashioned a sun visor out of some foam.

They slept rough for a night after fashioning a "mattress and blanket" from their lifejackets before being picked up by a dive boat in the morning.

During the night, shock hit Wilkinson and she started shivering as concern for Lawton set in and she thought about her loved ones, including her son Alex.

The couple were in good spirits and relatively good condition when they returned on Saturday despite Lawton recovering from some intense sunburn and Wilkinson suffering cuts on her legs.

Fortunately she had not idea she had cut her legs until she reached the island shore.

"One of my scariest moments was when I got to shore and I looked down and realised I had been bleeding the whole day off my leg, and if I had known that when I was swimming I would have been so paranoid about sharks," she said.

Wilkinson drew on her experience as an outdoor education teacher and her Kiwi upbringing.

She said it was a real concern that two missing passengers had not been found, but safety standard in Indonesia were "pretty shocking, really".

"We made sure we had lifejackets, but I mean they don't have any communication equipment or anything so it wasn't until I got picked by a dive boat that the word was put out search and rescue and that was 30 hours after the boat had actually sunk."

Lawton said it was a "little bit traumatic" at the time.

‘But it was pretty much you just think it's a little unreal at the time it happens and then you realise you've just got to swim to shore or stay with the boat and you are either going to make it or not and you just go for it."

After being reunited, the couple spent a few days in Bali for some rest and recovery, but they were glad to be home and were looking forward to getting back to Golden Bay and seeing their dog.

But the adventurous spirit was still burning. Wilkinson planned to return to Indonesia and said she would be taking the dive boat that had rescued her.

The Nelson Mail