Solo sailor swims 17km to safety

wreck-of-solo-sailor-boat-panama

John Deer, an Australian solo sailor who fell off his yacht in the Caribbean Sea, and had to swim 17km to safety, has spoken of his ordeal.

“I kinda treaded water for a moment and I’m thinking, ‘right, I’m gonna die’,” he told 60Minutes.

“Then I thought ‘am I just going to float around and wait for that lung full of water? I may as well start swimming’.

“So I started swimming.”

Deer was on a solo sailing trip around the world.

He bought a second-hand yacht, Julieta, in the Greek Islands and cruised the Mediterranean, learning to sail.

“It was a cheap way to live, that was a huge apart of the appeal,” he says.

“I didn’t want to get old and look back and go ‘oh, I worked a lot’. Life’s for living.

“I travelled for free with the wind, I ate for free, fishing from the ocean. I had solar panels so I had free electricity.”

Deer headed down the west coast of Africa then began the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, intending to reach Panama.

While casting a line out to catch fish in early June 2022, his foot slipped and he fell – untethered and without a life jacket – into the sea, in an area known to locals as Shark Point.

Deer was left, watching the boat he’d sailed halfway around the world alone drift over the horizon.

“There was that moment of confronting your mortality,” he says.

Solo-sailor-survives- swim-at-helm

Deer describes what happened in a harrowing account.

“Towards the end of a 30hr passage to Panama from Colombia, in a moment that happened in a split second (yet as if in slow motion) I fell off the back of my sailboat while underway, on autopilot with both sails up and the motor running,” Deer explains.

“I had just caught a little tuna and had gotten it off the line when I turned around to redeploy the lure and somehow slipped and fell. The seas were flat and calm. Not even a light swell.

“Having talked about this many times with fellow sailors as the worst imaginable thing to happen, suddenly I found myself in the water, my boat and home and safety sailing away from me at an alarmingly fast rate. I was nine nautical miles offshore – about 17km. I had no life jacket on.

“I was convinced I was dead. No one knew I was there. It was 5pm and the sun would set in an hour. I panicked and screamed out ‘Nooooo!!!!’ as I watched my boat sail away gaining more and more distance with every second.

“I struggled with the realisation of my imminent death for a few minutes not wanting to accept what seemed my inevitable fate, so I decided to give up that idea and determined to swim for shore. I usually wouldn’t attempt to swim 200m let alone 17km, but I was gonna give it a go. What other option did I have? Just give up and drown.

“I knew I’d need to stay calm and conserve my energy if I was to have any chance of survival. So began a routine of alternating breast stroke and back frog stroke.

“I was moving so slow it was hard to tell if I was making any progress towards the shore. But I just had to keep going. Using the straight side of the moon as a navigation aid while it was above and then the stars later.

“As soon as night set in I felt a nibble at my feet. I went into a frenzy of panicked thinking it was a shark, screaming and kicking and punching in all directions trying to scare it off. But again I couldn’t afford to waste energy so decided I had to keep swimming at any cost. Fortunately not a shark, those damned fish stayed with me, biting me almost the whole way to shore.

“I was extremely lucky. There wasn’t a strong current taking me offshore and the water was warm. For the most part it was quite calm. A light breeze picked up for a few hours on two occasions from my side and then from head-on. Despite the relatively small chop they created, it made it so much more difficult to keep my head above the water. And I had to fight against the headwind. I prayed to the universe for glassy conditions and both times after a few hours the breeze died down again and the waves eventually subsided.

“After what I guess to be about 10hrs, I finally made it to a rocky outcrop and managed to scramble up on the jagged rocks in the faint starlight. The moon had already set. I immediately felt the exhaustion upon feeling my own weight and gravity for the first time in so many hours. I had been running on pure adrenaline. My body immediately shut down and I passed out asleep for what felt like 20mins.

“In the morning after swimming around to the next point at first light, I realised I was in no-man’s land without any way out. Jagged rocky cliffs fringed by dense impenetrable jungle. I was going to have to be rescued from here.

“I found a decent sized stick and attached my t-shirt to the end of it to use a signal to flag down any boats going past.

“They were few and far between. The first one didn’t see me, so I scrambled to a more visible spot higher up. The second boat saw me and waved back but kept going. And eventually a third came to my rescue and agreed to take me to the border town I was originally heading for after seeing the desperation and tears welling up in my eyes.

“I asked them if they had seen my boat, and they reported that it had run into rocks and was underwater. I had guessed as much, although a small part of me was hoping it would have ended up on a soft sandy beach.

“They dropped me to the police station where I told them my story and they took me out to see the boat. It was completely destroyed and fully submerged. Everything was gone. I literally now only have the t-shirt and shorts I was wearing when I fell overboard.

“Now comes the daunting task of dealing with the boat, which in the blink of an eye has turned from my greatest asset, to an enormous liability. I couldn’t have wrecked a boat in a more remote place.

solo-sailor-wreck-boat

“Above all I’m glad to be alive. Possessions come and go. And it’s been a hell of a journey up until now. From Greece to Panama in three years. It’s sad I won’t be able to continue the journey back to Australia as planned. But I guess life had different ideas for me.”

Deer believes he had the current – and luck – on his side.

“17km/h over ten hours is like 1.7km an hour. I’m no Olympic Swimmer. I’m generally a pretty unfit guy. I 100 per cent must have had current with me,” he says.

A friend of Deer’s is currently aiming to raise money to help him get home.

Accidents at sea are an unfortunate part of the marine sector. Two sailors were rescued from a new boat after it lost its keel in early July 2022. The two experienced mariners’ yacht rolled about 15 nautical miles off Wollongong on the NSW South Coast. They were picked up by the Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Brisbane‘s RIB in 56km/h winds and two-metre swells.

Spotlight Job

Project manager (marine civils/construction engineer)

DOE, Hamble (near Southampton)

A confident, friendly, suitably experienced project engineer is needed join a growing team. You must have a minimum of 3-5 years post graduate, practical site experience in construction, ideally from a civil engineering background.

Full job description »

One response to “Solo sailor swims 17km to safety”

  1. James Hardiman, Ocean Elements says:

    oh my god, what an increadible account and reminder to us all that solo sailing is not to be taken lightly, even (pardon the pun) in the lightest of conditions. This is my biggest fear with solo yacht sailing and racing. Maybe some developments to autpilot’s / yacht controls should be high on the agenda given the surging popularilty on shorthanded sailing. Esp given that most dbl handed crews sail effectively single handed as most of the time the off watch crew is asleep… much pause for though.