Last Man Off: Author and Shipwreck Survivor Matt Lewis Discusses Disaster, Survival and Regret in the Southern Ocean
by Owen James Burke
Above: Likely the last (recoverable) photo taken of the Sudur Havid. All of Mr. Lewis’ photos from the voyage lie beneath the South Atlantic, somewhere to the west-northwest of South Georgia Island.
In April of 1998, a 23-year-old marine biologist named Matt Lewis boarded the Sudur Havid, a commercial fishing vessel headed for the Southern Ocean in search of Patagonian toothfish (better known for its more common market name, “Chilean sea bass”). He was to be a scientific observer, documenting the vessel’s catch. It was his first job out of school.
The vessel was to spend several months at sea between the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties, great conveyor belts of wind and current, named in reference to the almost constant 40-60-knot winds and 40-60-foot seas that occur within those southern latitudes. It was an adventurous gig – the kind of thing a young, freshly lettered bachelor is supposed to get himself into.
“With my mum and sister in Somerset before the trip, 1997. I know: bad hair, dreadful beard, but I was young.” Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis.
Two months into the excursion, the Sudur Havid was off South Georgia Island in a heavy storm, possibly overloaded, but continuing to fish, per usual, when the ship’s factory (where the fish are processed and frozen) began to take on water. The inboard pumps, which were used to drain the factory, became clogged, and stopped working. Slowly, the ship began to list, and the reality that she would have no chance of making port set in amongst the crew. South Georgia Island was 170 miles away–too far for helivac–and South Africa and South America were both well over 1,000 miles away.
Now it was a nightmare.
The ship, which Lewis, junior amongst the crew, had assumed was prepared for such an emergency, was carrying unserviced life rafts and no survival suits. The water over the rail was as good as freezing, about 32.5° fahrenheit (~0.25° celsius)–a temperature at which even a healthy human body can last no more than 45 minutes.
“When you’re in trouble, you pull together, fight together, try to laugh and keep your spirits up. But there’s only so much you can do when the water is so cold.”
To make matters worse, some of the 38 crewmen didn’t even know how to swim. (Surprising as it may be, this is not uncommon among fishermen, some of whom believe learning to swim is only a way to tempt their fate.)
Regardless, the skipper, the deck bosses, and the engineer–the personnel aboard who should have taken command–made no orders, and took no responsibility at all. Instead, they were packing their belongings and jumping into life rafts.
Looking around the deck, Matt Lewis was in disbelief. Hardly any crewmen were putting on lifejackets. They weren’t deploying life vessels – that is, apart from the ship’s officers, who’d already jumped ship and disappeared in their own raft. And, as far as Lewis knows, Coast Guard was not alerted and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (or “EPIRBs,” devices carried on almost all vessels in offshore waters with any regard for their personal safety) were not engaged.
As he watched the deck bosses and senior crewmen abandon the vessel in their own life raft with not the slightest regard for their fellow shipmates, Lewis remained on deck, calling orders and helping whomever he could in whichever way he could. Lewis did not abandon ship before realizing that he – the youngest, least experienced soul among the crew – was the last man aboard the ill-fated vessel. He then leapt into an overcrowded, partially swamped lifeboat in temperatures well below freezing. The ordeal was just beginning.
If there’s anything half as brave as Lewis’ decision to commit himself to the safety of the Sudur Havid‘s crew, it was certainly his courage to sit down and begin writing this memoir a decade after the ship and 17 of her crew met their tragic fate.
‘There are three things I’ll never forget: the laughs and the good times we had on that boat, the way everyone behaved on that day, and the Isla Camila, for rescuing us.’ This is Lewis’ “annual incantation” every year on June 6th, the date the Sudur Havid made her watery grave.
“In my favorite deck-suit, ready to go back to sea, Aberdeen, 1999.” Photo courtesy of Cosalt/Aberdeen Journals.
The Scuttlefish: Reading this book and keeping in mind that you’re 23 years old and you’ve never worked on a boat before in your life, it’s petrifying as you come to the realization that the ship you’re on is going down in the middle of winter on the Southern Ocean, hundreds of miles from the nearest soul or piece of land. What was the most terrifying moment for you?
Matt Lewis: There was the sheer terror of the boat going down. I was going to say that the moment when I realized that it was all happening, and it stops your mind from functioning with all the thoughts running through your head. It was actually the primitive realization of the boat coming down on [top of] you, and knowing that there’s nothing you can do. You’re in a little life raft, fighting as hard as you could, and it’s all going to be extinguished by a chunk of steel coming down on your head. It’s a very different fear from all the computations you’re trying to make about how you can survive, where the nearest boat is, and how you’re going to get out—compared to, “How do I get this lump of metal off me?” I tried to capture that thought process.
Reading that section, there were moments where I thought the book was going to end and that you were going to vanish. I had to look up from the book, breathe, and realize that someone actually finished writing this story!
I have wondered, if I was writing the book again, if I would try to imagine what happened in the third raft with Shakim and Carlos. When I was writing the book I needed to write about what happened in the second raft, with Sven and Steven, the other survivors. I do wonder what happened with the third raft. But I knew that if I tried to, it would have been pure conjecture, just trying to figure out what happened.
Your perspective from your own raft is more than enough for the reader to bear. How do you feel things might have gone if you’d been alone?
Physically, I think I was a lot happier having my crew mates there. I often see myself as being a bit of an independent person—I’m quite happy being alone. But I also know that I function better as being a part of a crew. The terror of being alone in that life raft, at the mercy of that sea. Tony Bullimore, the yachtsman who capsized in the Southern Ocean (during the 1996 Vendée Globe) and survived for five days in his overturned yacht, faced that (a story which he chronicled in his book, Saved: The Extraordinary Tale of Survival and Rescue in the Southern Ocean). You have to have a pretty strong mind to face that and not fall to pieces. When you’re in a life raft, so low to the water, and you’re looking at these swells that are just rearing up—I know that the ocean isn’t trying to kill you, it doesn’t care, but it really does feel like you’re about to be pounded into oblivion. I was really glad not to face that alone! It didn’t feel as scary with them.
What was the number one thing you wished that had been brought onto the raft?
If we would have had survival suits, that would have been brilliant. And the EPIRB/EPRB (Emergency Position (Indicating) Radio Beacon, or something like that. At the time, I don’t think that I realized how damaged our raft was. Now, I think that the floor was leaking some. Things like the bailers that we were trying to find, but I have a feeling that they would have done no good. An EPIRB would have at least let people know where we were.
We were left adrift in a raft without even a light on it. No radio, no way to communicate with the outside world. I can remember wondering how on earth we would even make it through until morning. I was so cold, felt so bad, there was a long night stretching ahead, and it was the middle of winter. A few of us managed to survive, but I don’t know how much longer we would have lasted.
It was a miracle you lasted that long, really.
Essentials of Sea Survival is a book I was reading when I was writing. That was quite a good book for finding out what we should have done. It’s about the science of hypothermia and cold-water shock. It really did open my eyes. I wish that I had known about it before I got on the boat, but in some ways I’m glad I didn’t, because then I would have known how dismal our chances really were.
Chart via Adrift at Sea.
You write that the “adrenaline rush from the accident sustained [you] for a year.” What do you think sustained you (and others) so long in the life raft, when statistics (see chart above) dictate that you all should have been long dead by the time the Isla Camila arrived?
I think it was determination that kept us alive. I didn’t see how we could be rescued, but I had some hope that someone would come to our aid – and that would take time. Fighting to stay alive was the best thing we did: I made conscious decisions to improve my chances of survival, such as getting out of the water and sealing out draughts.
Another factor was habituation: many of us had been working on deck being pelted with cold water each day, and I think that had helped us. Combined with a massive dose of adrenaline, I hardly noticed how cold the water was when it first flooded our raft. It soon started to affect me though…and I don’t think I would have lasted much longer.
For me, the most astonishing thing about ship’s sinking might be the captain and crew’s ill preparedness at critical mass—and you, a 23-year-old, fresh out of school, having to make the seemingly obvious distinction that the ship was going down, and having to take action. How did it feel, realizing that no one was taking command?
When I came up on deck, from the factory, basically people were starting to get ready to abandon the ship—and nobody had said, “Right, we’re going to abandon the ship.” It did seem so strange that things were happening, but that nobody had called it out. It wasn’t at all how I thought things were going to happen. What I can’t believe is that I walked away from the bridge and didn’t make more of a fuss when they said, “Shut the door, get out.” I can’t believe I didn’t say, “No, no, no, we’re in real trouble now, why aren’t you recognizing it?”—which is something I would do now, that I’m older, but when I was 23. . .
And without a background in the maritime industry, it’s almost unfathomable. What do you think it was on their part? Incompetence? Unwillingness?
I’ve obviously thought a lot about this over the years—their refusal to call it. I think part of it was, at first, them being macho and saying, “It can’t be that bad. Get on with it, you’re just complaining.” Later on, I think there was an argument between [First Mate] Boete and [Captain] Bubbles about whether they should stop fishing. Maybe they knew what trouble we were in, and they didn’t know how to get out of it. There was no easy fix, but if they’d put out a mayday earlier on, we would’ve had help sooner. Or, if they’d stopped fishing earlier, we could’ve possibly saved the boat.
Do you sense the Sudur Havid left port in an unseaworthy state more under corporate greed, or would you say that the crew were equally willing and eager, despite the condition of the vessel?
Oh, everybody wanted to get to sea and get to work. I was probably the one on the boat who didn’t want to go; I knew that the longer we stayed the longer we’d be out of the Southern Ocean. Everybody was ready to go. When the pumps burnt out, there was such irritation and disappointment after months of waiting in the harbor and getting ready to go.
The Sudur Havid had sailed with those pumps before. The court of marine inquiry said that those pumps should’ve been up to the job, but they were blocked by fish guts and scales. They should have been more careful in the factory about where they stored the waste. Also, they had a habit of putting cardboard on the floor to insulate their feet from the cold, and those broke up and blocked the pumps as well. If they had not done those things, they maybe could have kept the pumps running a bit better.
And when it came time to abandon ship, no calls were made. No one was ordered into lifejackets or survival suits–you were the only one with a survival suit, right?
There were no survival suits on board. There was nothing like that. Mine was just a work suit, so it wasn’t a proper survival suit. It was a deck suit. The Icelandic captain had one, too. What they could’ve done is gotten their crew properly prepared—oilskins and lifejackets on, maybe a grab bag with some flares and a VHF. I’ve had some confusing messages since the book was published. I understood that no EPIRBs [Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon] had been received, but one of the soldiers on South Georgia [island] has mentioned that possibly there was an EPIRB signal. I found no indication of that at the time of writing, but he read the book and got in touch. It was interesting to hear from people who were around at the accident as it happened, because I hadn’t been in touch with any of them. Since publication, I’ve heard from a number of people. It’s been good.
(Left to Right) Sven, Stephan, Morne and Matt Lewis at the memorial service for their shipmates in Grytviken, Falkland Islands, June, 1998, days after their rescue. Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis.
How about the crew? Do you keep in touch with some of them?
Yes, and a few more have been in touch since. Sadly, a few have died since the accident. The guys I spoke to, when I was researching the book, had been very pleased with the book. They seemed to be happy with the way I’d portrayed events. I was very nervous about that. I didn’t say to them, “Is this ok?” I went away and wrote the book and it was published. When they read it, I thought, what if they say, “This isn’t what happened at all?” But they told me that it was good. Brian Forbes has read it, and basically gave it the thumbs up. His son died during the accident, so it was important to me that I got it right.
Did you receive any negativity from any of the shipmates?
I’m sure some of the families aren’t pleased. I wasn’t overly positive about everybody. I was most nervous about the other survivors. They knew the events as well as I did, and they were the critics I was most worried about. So far, they’ve given me, if not approval—they’ve said, “Good job.” You asked just now if I had written again. I’m interested in, not a follow-up, but getting in touch with the survivors and finding out their experiences. There are certainly some interesting stories about how people have dealt with the event. When I wrote, I’d been dragging myself back to it, again and again over the years—six, seven, eight years since I’d started writing. For some of them, they had moved on. They hadn’t forgotten, but they had dealt with it and had gotten on with their lives. I’d been pushing myself back into it.
As you started writing, you said that you had previously tried to stuff a lot of emotions under the rug, so to speak. Did the skeletons start coming out of the closet?
With me, in terms of stress and things, some of that came up a little. Especially with publication, I worried about how it would be received and what kind of press it would get. I didn’t want people to think that I was trying to tell a big story about myself, but obviously I had to tell the story from my angle. I was describing guys who were acting under such stress, and I was worried they might say, “That’s so unfair! You never should have told that.” My cabin-mate, Glen—I just heard recently that he died a couple of years ago. He was very old when I knew him, but I would have been very nervous to know what he made of it. I would have quite liked to see him again.
I don’t have a lot of problems with PTSD or anything like that, but I’m lucky. Some have done well because they got over the accident and haven’t dragged it back up again like I have—but some other people have done worse, as well.
Can you recall any moments of comedic relief? It didn’t seem like there was much time for it, but there was at least one moment I remember when you guys were in the life raft, you were attempting to bail out with your boots and a coffee tin. Then somebody found something that would work as a bailer and said, “You could bail the Titanic with this thing!” Were there any other moments like these?
That was Big Donny’s welly boot! He was enormous, and I suspect his feet were a size fourteen or fifteen in U.S. sizes. The problem with the welly boots was that they folded as soon as you put them in water, so they were no good as a bailer. There were a few moments like that where there was some gallows humor, early on. I have to say that there was camaraderie, and trying to keep spirits up. But after awhile in the raft, people had fallen quiet. People just didn’t have the energy for that. It was quite telling as hypothermia kicked in and your energy went. Everyone went quiet, and basically just started waiting. That sort of “blitz spirit,” as we called it. When you’re in trouble, you pull together, fight together, try to laugh and keep your spirits up. But there’s only so much you can do when the water is so cold.
There’s no margin for error. I was just talking to a friend the other day about kayaking—we kayak together in Scotland. He had seen families in the Mediterranean going out with little babies in kayaks, and not worrying. If you fall into the water in the Mediterranean, you have quite awhile to swim to the shore. In Scotland, if that happens, there’s a big danger of cold-water shock. And where we were, the water was ridiculously cold. There’s no safety margin at all.
Do you still get angry? I’m sure you must have muted it a bit for the book, and dust settles as time passes, but I sensed some contempt for some of your former shipmates. As a reader, I was appalled by Walla Walla, the winchman who went to grab his mobile phone.
With Walla Walla, I didn’t see it. That was as described by Sven and Steven in their interviews. They described it, and they weren’t surprised. A few of them had had time to go back to their cabin for small things. Of all the things to take on to a life raft, at least it wasn’t in the way. He just tucked it in his pocket. I wasn’t angry about him. He’s a nice guy. He didn’t have a formal role to play in saving the boat. But people like Alfius, the engineer, when he’d gone back for his documents—he was the one I was really angry with. He’s an engineer, a greaser, he should’ve been trying to fix the pumps and save the boat.
He went back for a briefcase, right?
It disappeared into the Southern Ocean. Even with Alfius, it was annoyance, not bitterness on my part. By the time he was going for those documents, I don’t think there was much to be done to save the ship. He was from Namibia, so the paperwork there would have been difficult to replace.
Your opinion of who was responsible for the sinking has shifted over the years. Why?
When I came back from the accident, I was really angry with the boat owners. I saw that they put the boat to sea when the skipper wasn’t really happy with the pumps. Instead of waiting for the pumps that Bubbles wanted, the managers had made us go to sea again.
Also, when the inquest happened, they said that if Bubbles and Boete had stopped fishing, they could’ve saved the boat. When the accident happened, I was still very fond of Bubbles and Boete. I looked up to them a lot. When somebody else said that they might have been partly responsible for the accident, I thought, “No, no, no.” But eventually I’ve come to think that the inquest was right, and that they were partly responsible. They could’ve stopped fishing and sought shelter.
I wish I could argue about it with them. It would be good. Some mistakes you make have such huge consequences. They came across as being very experienced mariners when we were out at sea—I didn’t doubt for my safety until we were in real trouble and it all fell apart.
Decades of experience at sea don’t really prepare you for that, though.
No. I think if you look at other recent events with sinkings where captains have left the ship, like the Costa Concordia or the ferry in South Korea with the school children—there were captains who failed to follow their role. They’re wearing the uniform and failing to look after the passengers and crew.
What was the feeling among the rafts when you first saw “the light?” Can you recount that, outside of the text?
Complete disbelief. We’d been waiting for a long time. When the canopy blew back, and I saw the light, I thought, “Is that a light, or am I hallucinating? Is it really that?” There was a small ripple of recognition across the raft, as I said, “There’s a light!” We were slow to realize, almost as if everyone had been drunk. People turned around and dragged themselves out. We were all so fuzzy in our heads, and it wasn’t like everyone suddenly leapt to one side of the life raft—hardly anybody moved. Slowly, we were all looking out the window, trying to yell, scream, or whistle.
By that point, we think that maybe Bubbles and other people were still alive when we sighted the boat. There is an obvious relief when you see that you’re about to be rescued. That’s part of the reason they think people die, is because they see the boat coming, see rescue, and think, “Whew!” And then Bubbles died.
That seemed to be one of the more emotional losses, because you saw it so vividly, as compared to slowly finding out that others had already succumbed underneath you.
When I was kneeling on [deceased] people’s arms and legs, it was anonymous. You’re fighting for survival yourself, so there’s nothing you can do about it. But when there’s the prospect that you’re actually going to be rescued, you think, “Maybe we can survive this.” People like Bubbles had a family with young kids at home, people you really want to survive. Boete, the same. It’s brutal that they survived for a long time and didn’t quite make it.
(Left to Right) “Me, Charlie, Brian and Mark at the memorial service in Grytviken.” Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis.
What was the first thing you said to your mother, or your family after you were rescued?
I desperately wanted to speak to Corinne (Ed’s note: then partner, soon to be wife), but there was no answer so I phoned my mother. My first words were ‘”Hi Mum, you all right?”–the way I always opened our phone conversations, but funny when you think what I had just endured!
It’s taken you some time to write this book—and I say that with all due respect—do you feel your challenge writing it has been emotional, or was there difficulty putting the story into words and laying down the facts?
A combination, I think. The first few years, I didn’t want to write anything. I wanted to sweep it under the rug and pretend that nothing had ever happened. After awhile, it started bothering me. So I started writing in late 2006, and wrote every winter—my business would go quiet in the winter. It was probably five winters of writing and then playing around with editing, so it took a long time to write. When I started writing, I wasn’t entirely sure I could write a book. That’s really silly, looking back now, because that’s exactly what I was starting. When I first started typing away on the computer, my wife would come by and say, “What have you done today?” I’d say, “I’ve started writing.” We didn’t tell many people for a while that I was actually writing a book. There was certainly a lack of self-belief at the very start, but now I’m very proud of it.
Matt Lewis on the beach in the UK. Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis.
Are you still writing?
I’d love to write again, but at the minute I think I’ve blown my best story! When I was writing, there was no confusion about what I needed to be writing, or any thought of, “What should I add to this to make it a more interesting story?”
You don’t need fiction, there!
That’s my biggest pub story, in one book.
I think that’s just about anybody’s biggest story. Do you still have dreams? You said up until publication, you were nervous. How about now?
I don’t get flashbacks. Just a very occasional thing where you’re thinking of events and imagining yourself back there again. I don’t get flashbacks like you might get with combat troops or things like that. I’m very lucky.
We had one case where we were flying back with our children from Thailand, and there was an emergency landing on the plane. As the plane was coming down quite quickly, I held my daughter in her seat and had a surging terror while thinking, “Is this all going to happen again? Is this the same situation we’re in?” It was worse then, because I had my kids with me. Something like that would be the best example of stress. But I don’t get waking nightmares.
Do you look back at the experience more objectively? Does it—or did it, while writing—consume you, emotionally?
Sometimes, when I was writing the book, my wife would say something to me, and I was ten thousand miles away. It would take awhile for me to register what she had actually said. You’re trying to write, and to remember things, but I guess the depth of the experience is so involved that even now, when I’m thinking about the crew… When you think about some soldiers who say that flashing lights or loud noises would set off PTSD, I’m lucky that I don’t get that. I did get counseling when I got back, but I think time passing has also helped that.
What was it like getting back to work afterwards?
Blessed distraction. I mentioned in the book when I got back that I helped a friend renovate a flat, so I was installing floorboards and things like that. Getting back to normal was help. The problem was that a year later, I realized that I wasn’t all ok. Even 17 years later, I realize that I was pretending that I was okay, and for a few years I was not concentrating on what I should have been in my young life.
Lots of people have that with grief, trauma, or something. You look back and realize that you thought you were ok at the time, but that you were just clinging it together.
Another reason your book resonated with me was that towards the end, you wrote that people who say they have no regrets probably haven’t come to terms with the damage they’ve caused. I find a lot of truth and honesty in that.
It’s all too easy to say, “No regrets.” You’ll hear it again and again in interviews. That’s not true with me, and I do have a big bunch of regrets. Even now, since writing, my regret now would be why I didn’t scream louder when I went up to the bridge, why I didn’t object more when I saw things going wrong, why I wasn’t more assertive and forceful. Then again, I was 23. It’s not even the age, it’s that I was so junior, so new to it—I trusted other people. I’m glad that struck a chord with you. You can have regrets and move on, but I think people who have no regrets are ignoring what they’ve done, or what they’ve been involved with. But it doesn’t mean you were responsible. I’ve wondered before now if I would get back on the boat, given the chance.
What do you think about that?
Currently I’d say no, but then I’d never get to know the people I have a unique bond with now. I rarely get to see them, but when I do—the relationship I have with them is a bit different than the one you have with other people. It’s different from family, or my university friends, I don’t know them as well, but there’s this thing that can’t be changed.
Have you been out to sea much, since?
Off Newfoundland again as an observer, a year later. That was ok. There was one little bit where the pumps didn’t kick in. We took a wave in when we were bringing in the catch from the trawl deck down to the factory. A wave hit the stern deck just then, and it wasn’t a lot of water, but just enough to have a couple of inches in the factory. My heart rate went up, and I thought, “Oh, here we go again!” But then the pumps kicked in, the water left, and I could relax again. I couldn’t tell the crew on that boat about it, they had no idea. I knew they could bully me about it, because I was there to observe them. It was a shame—the best conversation, and I couldn’t tell anybody about it.
That must’ve been something to bottle up, with all those emotions going through you.
It wasn’t a happy voyage, but it was quite a relief. I was proving to myself that I was basically ok. It was a better boat, with better weather. I’ve been back to sea on things like yachts, dive boats, and ferries. I don’t have big issues being at sea, which is a big relief.
“Back at sea off Newfoundland, less than a year after the sinking.” Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis.
Why Newfoundland? Those are also notoriously treacherous waters, too.
They had some assignments in the British Indian Ocean territories, which is like going on a warm-water tuna boat. I had kind of hoped for one of those, but I enjoyed visiting Newfoundland. The boat out there was busy and good. The crew was nice enough, but the crew on the Sudur Havid was a special bunch of guys. I’m hoping from the book that you could sense the real characters that were on it. They were very welcoming. You’re going on as an outsider—they don’t need to welcome you as you watch them work, but they did.
The crew on the Sudur Havid seemed like they made sure you didn’t put your feet in the wrong place, or get caught up in the rigging, things like that.
I didn’t get yelled at by Boete, so that was fine by me. You were asking about whether I would write again, and I’ve talked with my wife about whether I should go off and do something adventurous again to write about. But there is this problem with kids, family, and home—if I leave that, I might spend the entire time away thinking, “I wish I was back at home!” Maybe life is too comfortable sometimes.
For all the freedom they talk about at sea, there isn’t too much space to roam on the boat itself, is there?
It’s a very simple life. Get up, work, and do what you’re told. I read a lot, even on land, but at sea I tackled some massive books that you would never deal with on land. But that’s just a sign that you’ve got nothing better to do! I’d think about going back to sea again, but I’ve got kids now. I don’t want to miss anything.
Above: Author and shipwreck survivor Matt Lewis teaches daughter Camila and son Tate how to fly fish. Photo courtesy of Matt Lewis.
How are you spending your time on the water these days?
At the minute, it’s just been learning whitewater kayaking. I’m right at the beginner level. When the boat sank, I was still diving some; I had been doing scuba. I did some wreck diving years ago, which was strange for me as a shipwrecked mariner. Now it’s just swimming in the rivers around our home, and getting out on the kayaks and having fun.
Wreck diving? after the accident?!
The Sudur Havik is in quite deep water, so she’s safe from someone interfering with her, but now I just tend to dive on warm holidays. All my kit is out of service, but every time I dive, I think, “Why don’t I do this more often?” I still enjoy charging around in boats and jumping into the water. But it doesn’t fit so well with the kids.
Do your kids ever ask about what happened?
We only told them a couple years ago, when I knew the book was going to be published. We told Camila, at three or four, what had happened to me and why she had her name. (Editor’s note: Camila is one of two children born to the survivors of the Sudur Havid, named after the Isla Camila, the vessel that rescued them.)
I realized people would be reading the book, realizing why she had her name, talking to her about it, and she wouldn’t know. I didn’t want my kids to find out from someone else, so I told them. It’s difficult. You say, “Daddy was on a boat that sank, and not everybody survived.” They’re too young to know all the details of the sinking. They don’t need to know the terror. Sometimes they’ll ask a question that isn’t very sensitive, and all you can say is that some people died. I don’t want them to know how bad it was. I’m sure that they’ll read it when they’re older, but I would expect them to be 12 or so. It’s not like it’s fiction.
Stranger, and more terrifying.
Matt Lewis currently lives in Aberdeen with his wife and two children, where he runs his own business bringing tropical bugs and reptiles to schools to teach children about conservation and the environment. Read more about Matt Lewis, and order a copy of Last Man Off here.