It’s the stuff of nightmares: bobbing in the open ocean for days on end, hoping a passing ship comes to your rescue.
The bad dream scenario became reality for four Australian surfers and three Indonesian boat crew members earlier this week after a freak storm destroyed their boat and left them stranded at sea approximately 90 miles off the west coast of Sumatra. Their disappearance on Sunday, August 13, kicked off a major search and rescue mission in Indonesia, as well as a flurry of media attention across the globe. The story has a somewhat happen ending: six of the seven were rescued on Tuesday afternoon after spending 37 hours adrift. But officials are still searching for one of the Indonesian crew members named Fifan Satria.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a group of 12 Australian friends traveled to Sumatra to celebrate the 30th birthday of Elliot Foote, a carpenter who lives in the town of Mullumbimby, New South Wales. The trip was a birthday present to Foote from his father, Peter Foote.
The vacation got off to a great start—the group spent a few days hiking in Sumatra near the town of Bukit Lawang. Foote posted on Instagram about his adventures in the jungle: “Seeing Orangutans was an amazing experience and something that I look forward to doing again for a longer time and going deeper,” he wrote on August 12. After exploring Sumatra, the crew traveled to the island of Nias, a jumping-off point for the Banyak Islands. Both Nias and the Banyaks are famous for their surf breaks.
On Sunday, the group split into two and boarded wooden speedboats bound for the tiny island of Pinang, where they were set to stay in a private surf resort. Eight of the friends boarded one boat alongside two Indonesian crew; Foote boarded the other, alongside his partner, Steph Weisse, 30, buddies Will Teagle and Jordan Short, and two Indonesian mechanics and the boat’s owner. They departed North Nias Port that afternoon.
But a storm blew in at approximately 5:15 P.M, and officials said that waves off the coast of Nias reached 13 feet and that heavy rains and wind hit the area. Indonesian officials said the boat with ten passengers sought shelter midway through the crossing at a small island called Saran Alu, while the other boat carrying Foote continued. Crew aboard the ten-person boat last glimpsed the other vessel at 6:20 P.M. that evening. The ten-person boat waited more than two hours for the storm to die down before continue toward Pinang Island, eventually reaching the resort at nearly 10 P.M. When they arrived, they learned that the other boat had never completed the trip.
Rescue operations began immediately—the driver of the boat that completed the journey ventured back out into the waves and searched until midnight, while staff at the resort called Indonesia’s search and rescue, Basarnas, to report the missing vessel. According to the live Australia missing person’s report detailing the mission, Basarnas officials arrived the next morning, launching ships at 11 A.M. An official told The Herald that rescuers focused on an area of ocean within 50 miles east of Pinang Island. Officials said those aboard the missing boat had life jackets but did not have navigation devices, flares, or a radio.
The mission relied on aircraft, multiple boats, and drones, and it grew throughout the day after one of the families of the missing chartered their own plane to fly overhead. But searchers were unable to find the boat or the missing people, and officials suspended operations overnight, saying it would begin on Tuesday at first light.
Monday night, an Australian captain named Grant Richardson joined the search with his private catamaran, the Sea Mi Amor. Aboard the Sea Mi Amor were three of Foote’s friends who had made it to Pinang island safely.
“Captain Richard is an experienced sailor of the region whom has a vast knowledge of the tidal and current movements within the island region as he frequently uses the tides, currents and winds to sail around region,” read a note on the Australian missing person’s report after he departed.
Richardson and his crew searched all night without success, but then, at 8:30 A.M., he radioed rescuers with an urgent message. “Will Teagle, Jordan Short, Steph Weisse found alive floating on surfboards!” Less than two hours later, crews heard from Elliott, who had been picked up by a fishing boat and driven to a surfing camp on another island.
The story of what happened to the boat is still taking shape, but Elliott and others aboard the boat gave brief comments to the media after they were saved. The captain of the boat, Yunardi Ardi, told Indonesian news outlet ABC.net that the boat had been speeding toward Pinang when massive waves struck it from behind, causing it to capsize. The Australians threw their surfboards into the water and jumped onto the boards for survival as the boat quickly sank.
Sunlight was fading, and the seven were left bobbing in the ocean. Ardi told media that they decided to attempt to swim to a nearby island. “The waves were high and we all discussed quickly and decided to swim to the nearest island using the last rays of sunset as our guide,” he said. “I paddled in the direction of Nias and I could see the lighthouse of Sarang Baung Island.”
Foote recounted the frantic final moments inside the boat in a video that circulated on Wednesday, August 16. After the battered boat began to take on water, he said that the crew began to frantically grab gear from the stricken vessel that could help them survive in the water. “When the first wave came in, Jordan was like ‘guys, this could be serious, what do we need?’” Foote said. “Me, Will, and Jordan are all gear guys, were like knife, head torch, get water together. Then another wave came and I was like ‘everybody get out now.’”
Foote’s father, Peter Foote, also spoke to local and national media during the rescue operation, and helped shed light on what happened to the four while they were lost. As the seven people bobbed in the waves, Elliot Foote decided to leave the group and paddle to an island he saw on the horizon. According to his father, Elliot paddled for more than a day. Ardi said that as the Australians paddled, the Indonesians floated, and after several hours Satria began to lose strength. “My missing friend looked weak as he was carried by a wave to the east toward Singkil,” Ardi said.
After 37 in the water, the group was found by the Sea Mi Amor. A fishing vessel picked up Foote several hours later approximately 20 nautical miles away, near Palambak Island, and took him to a surf camp in the Bay of Plenty.
But after more than three days of searching, crews have yet to locate Satria, and Indonesian officials are continuing to look for him. On Wednesday, the four Australian survivors released a short video thanking the rescuers who spent days searching for them. They also offered condolences to the missing man’s family. “Now, our thoughts are with the Indonesian families and friends of the missing man still out there,” Elliot Foote said. “We hope the best for him.”