Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worst. The weather escalated and strong winds began billowing, rocking his boat back and forth violently. John only just managed to grab his backpack and a safety buoy when water flooded the boat, forcing him to abandon ship. By the time the other boat returned to find him, it was late evening and John was nowhere to be seen, tossed about far off course and adrift in the dark.
This harrowing experience would be enough to force anyone to give up on life within the first 24 hours, but John managed to hang on with great difficulty for over 72 hours. Skin stinging from petrol and salty seawater, horribly sunburnt, blinded in his left eye (his right eye had already been lost in a road rage incident when he was 27), and nothing to support him but his own strength and willpower, this 60-year old dive instructor lives to tell his unbelievable tale and is already back diving 1 year after the ordeal, which took place in May 2019. We sat down with John to get some insight into his life and how he managed to survive this harrowing incident.
Where did you spend your early years, and how did you come to own your dive shop in Tioman?
I was born in Singapore, but lived mostly in Malaysia. I studied there, stayed with my family, and my first marriage was in Kuala Lumpur. We lived a pretty normal life, and I worked as a pipeline engineer in Vietnam which I continue to do even today. Around 2004 my kids and I began picking up diving as a hobby. We got really involved and eventually it turned into such a passion that I started my dive shop in Tioman and became a certified dive instructor.
It’s been such a blessing to have found diving, witnessing sea life and corals and the entire alien underwater world that is waiting to be explored. My children love it as much as I do - my son George has a real passion for underwater photography, and he can stay in shallow waters just snapping photos for hours at a time.
Diving is also how I met my wife, Eva. When we met, she was an outgoing, independent saleswoman who immediately captured my attention (and affection) at first sight. She was in a relationship that didn’t last long, we kept in touch, and the rest is history.
What do you love most about diving, and do you think your experience as a diver helped you survive being stuck at sea?
I guess my love for diving began as I was getting a little fed up with the usual urban/man made attractions. Travelling to famous tourist sights is nice, but to me it is nothing compared to an actual underwater adventure. Especially when diving with a partner who is equally as passionate about underwater exploration, it makes the experience all the richer. Every dive site is a brand new experience filled with wonder and unexpected encounters.
Shallow dives have multivariate small creatures to admire, while deep dives may present encounters with larger creatures or the ghost of a sunken ship. Shipwrecks may be the final resting place for anything such as bullets to dead bodies; it’s all very exciting and frightening at the same time. You get a real adrenaline rush just being there. Even more mysteriously, you might come across a fresh water hole in the middle of the ocean, teeming with fresh water creatures. In the middle of the ocean! It is truly a different feeling altogether compared to say the Eiffel Tower or famous theme parks.
As for the second part of your question, in a way, yes my experience with diving did help a little bit. Perhaps the strongest link is that I didn’t find myself in entirely new territory. Being in the water was second nature to me by then, so to a certain extent that protected me against paralysing fear, allowing me to focus on thoughts of seeing my family again.
Could you describe your experience during the first night? Did you manage to rest on the buoy at all?
No, there was no proper rest. While I was floating on the buoy, I needed to maintain alertness and keep hanging on. If I were to nod off, there would be a danger of slipping underneath it and losing the buoy altogether. Granted, I was tied to the safety string but the fear of drowning was very apparent. When you’re awake for 4 days, the brain does funny things - closing your eyes for just 30 seconds brings a feeling of being in a relaxing spa of some sort. Your brain compensates for its lack of rest and somehow packs a boost of energy into that little 30-second window.
As mentioned before, being a dive instructor came in handy - staying calm in choppy waters during the night was part and parcel of diving, so there wasn't much fear at the time. When I could open my eye, I looked up to the sky to see the view, and to my surprise I saw 20 small flickering red lights that I cannot quite explain. I definitely saw them, and at first was puzzled as I couldn’t understand what they were, but somehow they gave me assurance that I would be safe. It reminded me of something I read in my Bible, about when you’re stuck at sea, the night sky becomes your daylight which shows you the way.
There definitely were worries about being pushed too far out to sea that would cause rescue to be impossible, but on the other hand I found comfort in knowing my family was looking for me. Keeping thoughts of my family in my head lessened the feeling of being distressed and kept me going.
How did you deal with the physical challenge of it all?
There are three main difficulties from being stuck in water for a prolonged time; the first is hypothermia as the body loses heat quicker when submerged in water. Secondly, my skin began to rot from prolonged exposure to heat and saltwater. Thirdly, hunger and dehydration, again from the salt water. Additionally, waves are hitting you from all angles, which may clog up your nose and restrict breathing. I dealt with all these difficulties by being as calm as I could. Everything was completely out of my control, so I didn’t waste time panicking and struggling.
I became witness to the most beautiful sunrise and sunsets, my watch became like a brother who I could talk to as though it were a person, and my buoy was relentlessly keeping me alive. My mind would say “I can’t stand the pain anymore”, but I diverted my attention by closing my eyes or simply witnessing the beauty around me, and the pain would dissipate.
Can you elaborate a little more on the mysterious lights you saw?
They looked like little Christmas lights, and they would come and go upon my command. That’s why it felt personal, like I wasn’t alone, because the lights felt like they were accompanying me on my crazy adventure. I also did experience hallucinations, and those were bizarre enough that I knew I was hallucinating. At one point I felt crabs crawling all over my body, and at another point a voice came to me saying “Just let go, you’re close to the shore”. Good thing I had enough self-awareness not to give in.
How long did it take you to heal after being rescued?
It took roughly about a month. I suffered multiple organ failures and severely damaged skin, but healing just took its course slowly but surely. The only thoughts I had were those of having a meal with my family once I was out of the hospital. I kept thinking “Where shall we go first? Ice cream? Roti canai?” (laughs)
In fact, within 2 hours of being discharged from the hospital, we all ended up at a Haagen-Daaz. Every meal since then has been a gift.
What about facing the prospect of death?
In my belief, we either go to heaven or hell when we die, and I believe in going to a better place. So as far as I was concerned, If I lived, I would get to see my family. If I died, I’d go to heaven. Either way, it’s a win to me.
In what key ways has this experience changed your life?
My love of family kept me going during the most difficult challenge of my life, so I treasure that love more than ever.
I appreciate every moment much more, and I don’t fly off the handle easily. I’m also much less stubborn and adamant, because I’ve learnt that little things do not matter. Someone irking you? Someone owes you money? If you’ve been ‘dead’ before, you’ll find that all the money owed to you cannot be brought along to the other side. (laughs) I am also immensely grateful for every plate of food I receive, enjoying every bite until the plate is clean.
Finally, I learnt that the times you feel like giving up last for a few moments, but the rewards of holding on last a lifetime. It’s all about focusing your mind on better times. I think back to the moments when I told myself ”I had enough. Enough of being stuck here….”, only to find the unpleasantness disappearing as fast as it came. Hope would flood back in and I would think of my family again.
Do you have a new relationship towards fear?
There is a greater understanding, for sure. Fear is inevitable, because your mind cannot cope with uncertainty. But it should not prevent you from living your life. Overcoming the fears that flooded my mind during this experience made me appreciate life so much more, so I am grateful that there was fear to overcome in the first place.
For this reason, I am able to dive again. I now have a new lease on life, and there is nothing to be afraid of from our past, only lessons to be learnt. Speaking of which, I now put a great deal of effort into safety measures, implementing new precautions and strategies into my diving practice.
Final words before we wrap up?
We can only shine by going through turbulence. Embrace the rough times as important life lessons, and never give up hope for better days.
While his family tirelessly organized search missions with no luck, John was finally rescued on the 4th day by a passing ship mastered by Captain Cor Plugge of the Diogo Cao. He was brought aboard and tended to by the crew before being flown by helicopter to Singapore General Hospital, where he revived over a month against all odds.
This remarkable story inspired us at BOLDR to dedicate our latest Odyssey 45 dive watch series to John’s unsinkable human spirit. May it serve as a reminder that the love of family can get you through even the most harrowing circumstances. Find out more about the Odyssey 45 here
Channel News Asia’s coverage of John’s story: