Diver held body and mind together during epic survival against odds

New Zealand’s Cook Strait where diver Rob Hewitt drifted for more than three days

How a diver’s body, personality, equipment and knowledge helped him survive being lost at sea for the longest-ever recorded time is detailed in new research.

Rob Hewitt was found after spending about 75 hours drifting in water near Cook Strait, off New Zealand’s capital, Wellington.

The water temperature was 16-17 degrees, cold enough to kill within a few hours.

How he managed to stay alive ten times longer than average is described in the study led by Dr Heather Massey, an expert in human physiology at the University of Portsmouth.

“Rob’s story is not only one of buying time by his body shape and strength and his equipment, but also the psychological battles played out from the moment he realised the boat he was supposed to be on had gone.”

She and Dr John Leach, a visiting senior research fellow in the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Portsmouth and an expert in survival psychology, collaborated with colleagues at hospitals in New Zealand’s Christchurch and Wellington. Their article is published in Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine.

Dr Massey said:  “A number of factors contributed to Rob’s survival. He was an experienced diver used to cold water, so didn’t flounder gasping for air. Although he made several attempts to save himself, swimming towards the disappearing boat and later towards land, he passed out as a result of the effort.”

Rob is an experienced Navy diver, fit, 1.8m tall weighing 100kg and wearing a wetsuit, which made it more likely he would retain a warmer core temperature than a lean person. By adopting a foetal position and keeping movement to a minimum, he further reduced heat loss.

“Rob’s story is not only one of being bought time by his physiology and equipment, but also the psychological battles played out in five stages when he was separated from the boat, during his immersion and recovery.”

The psychological stages explored by Dr Leach were:

  • Pre-impact: knowledge, training and experience which contribute to a psychological state of preparedness;
  • Impact: when a person realises their life is threatened. It is usually sudden, violent and beyond the person’s control;
  • Recoil: when the immediate danger has subsided and the person begins to re-establish ability to think, though not necessarily fully aware of the danger they are in;
  • Rescue: A compelling need to talk about their experience again and again;
  • Post-trauma: Psychological recuperation after a life-threatening experience can take months or longer, and can range from the pathogenic – including mental breakdown – to the salutogenic – including personal and emotional growth as a result of the stress.

Dr Leach’s analysis of Rob’s recoil phase includes how he prayed every prayer he could remember and repeatedly recited the Lord’s Prayer. Later, he took out his frustration by swearing at God. He also said he spoke the names of his wife and children over and over, like a mantra, even talking to them individually.

He said: “People turn to prayer as a coping response in times of high stress and recent research has shown that religious belief can compensate for a lack of control over a situation, alleviate anxiety and stress, strengthen self-control and evoke feelings of inner strength and rest.

“Reciting prayers and names of family members as a litany or mantra serves to increase the hope of surviving and to reduce anxiety through both physiological and psychological mechanisms.”

Physiologically, reciting prayers and mantras slows breathing to six breaths per minute, coinciding closely with endogenous circulatory rhythms.

Psychologically, the theory is that prayer and recitation use the same brain resources as worrying and anxiety, so allowing a survivor to steer their mind away from worry, reducing anxiety.

Survival also demands planning and action, which keeps the brain engaged, implies hope in a future, and prevents inertia, which leads to apathy.  It’s a strategy used by many long-term survivors, including hostages, who have made lists in their heads of things they want to do or accomplish.

The research also noted routine was vital.

Dr Leach said: “A routine serves to increase the amount of spare capacity in working memory for planning and decision making. Rob set himself the simple but important task of repeatedly and systematically checking all his gear.”

Rob was found on February 9, 2006 close to where he’d last been seen after drifting an estimated 60km back and forth on strong tides. His skin was covered in sea lice, he was hallucinating, he’d lost his wetsuit jacket and his core body temperature had dropped to close to hypothermic.

He recovered both physiologically and psychologically and went on to write a book about his experience, Treading Water: Rob Hewitt’s Survival Story. He now works as a water safety campaigner in New Zealand.

Drs Massey and Leach say not everyone is severely affected by extreme experiences and different people can react differently to the same life-threatening situation – it is less about the situation and more about the meaning people attach to their experience that determines how they’ll respond.

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