Stranded at Sea for 32 Hours: A Survival Story
Stranded at Sea with Nothing but a Wetsuit and Surfboard: The Story of Matthew Bryce
Earlier this year, Matthew Bryce was stranded at sea with only his surfboard and his wetsuit. What was supposed to be a day of fun and surfing turned into 32 hours of survival. We were lucky enough to have an interview with Matthew detailing what exactly went wrong that day and his tale of survival. All thanks to his wetsuit, surf board, and will to survive, Matthew Bryce lived and here’s his story:
First things first, how old are you, where do you live and what do you do for a living?
I am 24 years old and I do IT at a law firm. I live in Airdrie, Scotland.
How long have you been surfing?
I started surfing casually four years ago then really got into it two years ago. I was working in France seasonally then after the season, I started surfing near Biarritz until I had to return to the UK.
What were the conditions like on that day you went surfing?
I went surfing at Westport beach, north of Machrihanish that’s on the Argyll and Bute peninsula. It was a chill spring day, not too cold as it was sunny. The water temperature was around 46 degrees F; not sure about air. It was windy although the beach I surf at is sheltered as there are large hills behind, the wind hits once you’re out when it’s offshore. The conditions themselves seemed nice – clean 6 to 8ft waves and it was sunny too which is always a plus. Felt like a normal day. I hadn’t surfed since November (winter can be a pain to drive up in) so I was just excited to get into the water.
What wetsuit were you wearing? How thick? Any boots or wetsuit accessories?
I was wearing a Lomo wetsuit (Glasgow based company) which had 5mm on torso/legs/arms. I also had a 2-3mm vest since it stopped the back zip from letting water touch my skin. Had a hood and gloves but didn’t wear boots as I prefer to surf without them since I wasn’t planning on being out that long. I didn’t have a watch which I wish I had to track the amount of time I had to use the sun. A PLB (Personal Location Beacon) would have been awesome to have but I didn’t own one at the time.
At what point did you know something was going wrong?
So initially I thought I was stuck in a rip, I’d paddled out behind the waves to catch a breath when I tried to work my way in I was unable to make any progress to the beach. Cramp settled into my shoulder making it more difficult to paddle too. Eventually I couldn’t make sense of the currents the waves were in front of me but I was unable to head in. I thought a weird current was coming around from the side. I decided to head south to the next wave point. Again I was unable to make any progress into the beach. I’d been looking for people on the beach but it had been deserted. By the time anyone was there I was too far out for them to see me. At that point I realized I wasn’t going to get east to shore any time soon. So I decided to head south, down to Machrihanish, it’s about 3 to 4 miles. As the land curved out west I was hoping to hit land before I ended up beyond land. I spent a few hours heading south and got within a kilometer of land. The current in the water had been carrying me down. As I got close to land though the current changed directions and I was swept all the way north past Westport. I realized I was in real trouble when the current changed when I had already been making good progress to land. By the time I went past Westport I was at least a mile off shore. Again I thought I could beat the tide and try and hit land to the north. By this point I’d been in the water for at least 7 hours, I was exhausted. I didn’t get anywhere near land before the currents changed again and I was taken south. At that point night fell.
You were stranded for about 32 hours, correct?
I went out at 11:30 on Sunday, April the 30th and was picked up by the coastguard around 7:30 PM on Monday, May 1st. So yeah, 32 hours. I was unable to sleep at all during it.
How long were you paddling during those 32 hours stranded?
As I kept paddling every few minutes, I would force myself to count out 30 seconds to help me stay warm. Initially in my head it was disbelief at the situation. As I headed south to land, the plan in my head was to stop in a house get some soup and then walk back to my car. When the current changed I realized I’d be spending the night in the sea. I was hoping my parents would call a search in the evening as I was supposed to be having dinner with them. It got cold, I started getting too tired to paddle. Too tired to stay awake. Whenever I nodded off I’d fall into the water. The board was too narrow to relax on. The water and wind along with me falling asleep meant I’d get tipped into the sea as soon as I stopped paying attention. Eventually I couldn’t stop from nodding so I propped up my head on my hands, giving me enough time to keep my head above the water when I fell in. It meant my head stayed dry and I’d be slightly warmer. But I was shivering anyway.
Paddling every couple minutes had became every 5 minutes which became every 10. I’d still count out though, paddling for 30 seconds. Not to reach anywhere. Just to stay warm. Eventually it was whenever I started to shiver. In my head it had been a constant “You can do this, don’t give up.” At the start it had been loud, bold. But as night fell, a small voice, weak at first “You’re going to die. Just give up.” And it got louder. It overtook the first voice and became the main thing in my head. And I accepted it. It became a fact “I’m going to die”.
Were you wearing enough gear?
Along with the 5mm wetsuit and the vest, I also had a hood and gloves. I hadn’t worn booties as I didn’t like the ones I had (too loose). In terms of gear I’d say that was a good set of gear. I should have had a PLB to track the time. Really I shouldn’t have gone out on my own. It was foolish and I’m incredibly lucky I didn’t die from being that reckless.
Were you wearing a leash?
Yes, I had a leash. It was the only thing that kept me with my board.
What about your parents? When did they know something was wrong?
So my parents called the search on Monday around 11 AM when I didn’t show up for work. I didn’t get rescued until 7:30 PM that day.
What did you have to do for thirst? What was worse – thirst? Hunger? Exhaustion? Or were they pretty equal?
I didn’t get to drink anything, I tried biting open the inside of my cheek to get blood but it really doesn’t bleed that well. I also tried washing my mouth in salt water to get a feeling of moisture but it just made things worse. I think a few more hours and I would have been drinking sea water. Thirst was much worse than hunger, hunger didn’t really register to be honest. It was more the cold and thirst that were noticeable.
Did you ever lose hope while out at sea? If you did, was it peaceful or terrifying or both?
I’d been hearing very faint chopping throughout the day. I saw a police helicopter in the early afternoon that was searching in the distance, it disappeared though and afterwards I wasn’t sure if I’d just imagined it. At one point my vision was so bad due to dehydration that I’d confused a bird for a helicopter as well. So by the time the evening came I wasn’t trusting my senses. I’d had to face out west by that point as any other direction caused the wind and water to knock me off the board. And I was so tired that having that happen would likely kill me as it wasn’t guaranteed I’d get back on. So I was looking out west at the sun setting. The chopping started to manifest again. I disregarded it at first. It got louder. Until I looked up and saw a helicopter in the distance heading my way.
What were the best decisions you made while you were out there? Any survival tips you used?
I had to think of a way to get them to see me. I was in black so waving wasn’t that useful. My board was bright yellow though. So I slipped back on the board and pointed it up. The idea was to make big yellow triangle that was more visible. Also it would bounce the light off of it. I tried bouncing it in the water to make it wiggle as well. To make it move as much as possible.
The helicopter flew over. It kept going and I realized they had missed me. I watched it fly away for 10-15 seconds. It was gut wrenching. I was alone. And then it turned around to the right. As that happened I kept the board up and started thrashing the water to move as much as possible. They circled around. I could see the winch-man in the side door. And they hovered as he looked down.
What did you feel when you were finally rescued? What thoughts went through your mind?
I’d spent a day accepting the fact I was going to die, that it was all over. Realizing that wasn’t true was as emotional as the initial acceptance. I’d been numb since the night. Resigned to death. When they started lifting me out I was crying, laughing and choking all at the same time.
Do you still have that same wetsuit and surfboard to this day?
The wetsuit and gear were all cut off of me in the helicopter, so it was destroyed.
Do you surf now? If not, do you believe you’ll surf again?
I started about two months ago and I’ve been twice since. I’m actually going up this weekend!
Matthew was found about 13 miles off the coast of Northern Ireland on May 1st, 2017 after his parents had called a search and rescue team. Once rescued, he was transported to a hospital in Belfast, Ireland to be treated for hypothermia and spent eight days in the hospital. Matthew’s first post-incident surf session was in a wave pool at Surf Snowdonia.
Matthew Bryce survived what seemed to be something almost un-survivable. Perseverance along with his 5mm thick wetsuit helped save his life. His story is an endearing one and we’re certainly happy to see he’s hitting the surf again!