Els Visser was 24-years-old and backpacking solo around Indonesia after finishing a medical internship in Bali when the small boat she was travelling on sank in the middle of the night with no signal, GPS or means to raise the alarm. After an eight-hour swim to the closest island Els and another passenger were eventually rescued.
The experience changed Els’ life and ultimately led her to take up triathlon. Below, the Dutch HOKA ONE ONE athlete shares a first-hand account of her shipwreck experience and reveals how her new-found resilience and approach to life helped her become an Ironman champion with a win in Maastricht last year.
THE BOAT TRIP
In 2014, I started a four-night boat trip with 20 passengers and five crew members from Lombok to Komodo in Indonesia. The idea was to visit several islands, do some diving, snorkelling, sunbathing, relaxing and having fun with the others onboard. We had a great first day, but unfortunately on the second day I felt very sea sick and was vomiting all day. The waves were pretty high too. Later in the afternoon, we had to sail for 18 hours to the next island. I planned to sleep early and hoped that I would feel better the next day.
Early in the evening, more people became sick and unwell. The waves became higher and higher and the weather was very bad. We slept on one big deck next to each other on small mattresses. It was a simple boat, nothing special – perfect for backpackers though! I was very anxious in the bad weather, and some of the windows broke and fell out. I found a lifejacket and put it on, just in case, as I had a very bad feeling.
I lay next to a Spanish guy and he tried to make me more relaxed. However, nobody could sleep because of the bad weather and there was a lot of discussion about what was happening as all the waves smashed against the boat. Then, at around 11pm, we slowed down and the motor of the boat stopped. It didn’t take long before the guide came upstairs to say that we had to put our lifejackets on and come down. At that point, there was a hole in the boat and water was starting to enter.
SHOCK AND FEAR
People started to cry, become angry and petrified. I tried to stay calm and think about what I should do. During my medical studies, I learned to stay calm and focus on what’s important at that moment in time. Initially, I tried to fix the hole, but the water was pouring in quickly and there was no way that this would help. We then all tried to contact people on land who might be able to rescue us. However, all of our phones were out of service and the boat had no equipment; no GPS, no satellite phones, not even flares! Nobody knew that we were in trouble and sinking in the middle of the night, alone in a very dark ocean.
At that point I realised that we were in big trouble. This was heightened because the day before, we hadn’t seen any boats or people either. I took my passport so people would be able to identify my body and inform my parents. I also took the memory card of my camera in the hope that I could save my photos, just in case I would survive this nightmare. Lastly, I drank a bottle of water so that I would be hydrated for a while and took a blanket to stay warm until the moment that we had to leave the boat. I saw my backpack disappearing in the ocean, but I didn’t care. What’s the importance of clothes and material things?
Suddenly a very large wave came in and we were all sent smashing into the big ocean. I was under the water’s surface for a couple of seconds – all I could feel and see was black water. I didn’t know how to come back up to the top. It was a moment of panic and I thought this was how I was going to die. Then, I felt some arms, pulling me out. I found myself in a little lifeboat. I was still alive.
We had one little lifeboat with space for six people, but without paddles or a motor. Just a simple metal boat, but at least something to stay dry in. For the rest of the night we were with the entire group, sitting on the roof of the deck of the sinking wooden boat, six people crowded in the little lifeboat and the rest swimming in the black ocean.
We barely spoke to each other. The temperature dropped and the wind and the waves made me feel very cold. With my background as a medical student, I was extremely worried about hypothermia. I was only wearing underwear and the t-shirt I’d been sleeping in. Also, I was worried about losing energy and suffering from dehydration without eating. I was already weak from vomiting all day.
SWIM OR WAIT? A HUGE DECISION
Around 6am the sun began to rise. Although surrounded by a powerful ocean, a mountain-shaped island became visible in the distance. As soon as I saw the island, I suggested we should all swim. However, people warned me off, telling me: “The sea is too strong, the current is pushing you away from the island, we are better off staying in one big group beside the wreck of the sinking boat.” I understood what they said, however a second night at sea, losing more energy and waiting for nothing is not what I wanted either. It frustrated me! We started arguing, but nothing happened in the following hours. In a split second I took my decision, I was going to swim and four others came with me. I felt I would rather die fighting for my life than die not trying!
We started swimming on our backs, arms folded across our lifejackets and making powerful leg strokes, in survival mode. Metre-high waves crashed over our heads causing us to lose sight of each other. We used the survival whistles attached to our lifejackets to get back together. As soon as we’d left, I felt better. I was still sure about the fact that I was going to die, however I did what felt good to me. I was fighting for my life and I followed my own instinct instead of doing what the other people wanted. Now, I was together with people who had the same mindset. We needed to fight for our lives and as such we became more motivated.
SWIMMING FOR MY LIFE
As Gaylene, a lady from New Zealand, and I swam faster, we became separated. She was a strong, fit and adventurous woman with a lot of outdoor experience and I wanted to stay with her. I thought: Focus and swim until you can’t swim anymore. When my thoughts drifted away towards the idea that my parents would get news that their daughter wouldn’t be coming back, I felt an enormous pain, but as soon as these thoughts popped up, I blocked them straight away. Swim, swim, swim, I thought. More than five hours into the swim, we suddenly realised that we could see individual trees on the hillside of the island. We were getting somewhere! We also saw thin lava streams reaching down to the sea and realised that there was an erupting volcano!
Then, we were about 500 metres from shore. I could smell the island, but there was still a huge off-shore riptide we had to get through. We rolled over from our backs and swam with a powerful crawl against the waves. We fought hard; a few metres forwards and a few metres backwards, but we broke through the current into calmer waters and then my feet touched the beach. I was so relieved. I survived the enormous, powerful and unpredictable ocean. I was out of the water.
ALONE WITHOUT FOOD, SHELTER OR WATER
It didn’t take long until Gaylene brought me back down to earth. The swim was just step one – we were on a volcanic island with no food, no shelter, no water. We took off our wet clothes to dry in the last rays of the sunset. I was naked now, on a deserted beach walking on the rocks and through the bushes to find water. We didn’t find anything and so before we found a sheltered place to sleep, we drank our own urine.
As a city girl, I laid down and looked up at the amazing stars in the arms of Gaylene. I felt safe and my thoughts drifted off to the people who were still in the ocean, wondering where they were. When we woke up at sunrise, I felt horribly sunburnt and had blisters all over my face. It could take days before help would come as nobody was looking for us. We discussed what we had to do and agreed that water was high priority. With objects that had washed in with the tide, we made visors to protect our faces. And then, in the early morning, we spotted a boat and waved with our lifejackets on a long stick. Was this our rescue? Sadly, the boat passed and wasn’t visible anymore. It took a few more hours until the same boat reappeared and was motoring towards us. I couldn’t believe that rescue was coming! Where I had been in survival mode for so long, I snapped out of it and cried. I realised that my life was going to continue.
Later that day, about 40 hours after the sinking, the lifeboat with the other people was spotted, drifted away from shore. Everyone survived, apart from two Spanish passengers who swam for the island as well, but were never found.
My experience in Indonesia was a life-changing moment. I realised that life can be very short and so I want to enjoy every moment of it and make the most out of it. Don’t wait to chase your goals and all the things that you want to achieve. Go for it and have the courage to take the step into the unknown! You can only regret the things you didn’t do. I’m also very grateful that I still have the opportunity to continue my life. It was not my time to die yet. As such, I try to appreciate all the little things in life and try to be kind. I can’t stress anymore about things that I would stress about before. When I put everything into perspective, those things don’t matter.
The accident in Indonesia made me realise how strong we are as humans – both physically and mentally. We were able to remain for such a long time in the ocean, as well as later, on an island, without having any medical issues after I was rescued.
A MOVE INTO TRIATHLON
Two years later, in 2016, in the final years of my studies, I wanted to be healthier and more active, so I started doing a bit of running – around 15-20 km a week. My friends entered a sprint triathlon and I decided last minute to join them for fun and really enjoyed the race. I even surprised myself by being the first woman to cross the line. I told my colleagues in the hospital the following week and one of them told me about Ironman triathlons. I didn’t believe him when he started explaining them. How were people able to complete a race like this?
I started watching videos and thinking about the idea of racing one. I was busy with my PhD in surgery but still didn’t work in clinic and so I didn’t have night or weekend shifts, and I decided to race the Ironman Switzerland in July 2017. I entered the race in October 2016 and I started training. My life changed slowly from a city girl enjoying dinners and parties with friends to a sporty girl, training almost every day. I couldn’t believe it, but I enjoyed it a lot and made a lot of progress.
Later that year, I even started training twice a day. My friends thought that I was crazy, and I was, although it was nothing compared to the training I’m doing now. I had a big goal; to race the Ironman. With all that I do in my life, I try to make the best out of it and push myself to the limit. So in preparation, I ran the Rotterdam marathon and finished in 3 hours and 4 minutes. I also did a couple of small triathlons to prepare and my results were pretty impressive. The triathlon world in the Netherlands started to know me and wondered who this little blonde girl was!
MY FIRST IRONMAN
After 10 months of training I was ready to race the Ironman Switzerland and I couldn’t have had a better race. My family and friends were there for support and I raced all day long with a big smile on my face. I managed to finish first in my age group and 4thoverall – something that never crossed my mind before. It was a day I will never forget.
I had a Dutch coach who told me that I was very talented and if I focused more on training I would be able to achieve great results. Then I started to think, shall I give it a go or not? It took me a couple of weeks to decide. Would I still be able to become a great surgeon if I gave up my job right now? Am I really that talented? I didn’t know anything yet about this sport. However, most importantly, I enjoyed it so much. I saw it as a big adventure and a challenge to get the best out of myself and see what’s possible to achieve. Because of what happened in Indonesia, I didn’t want to look too far ahead and so I decided to put my job on a hold and just give it a go!
I decided to train with the Trisutto group and found Cameron Watt as a coach. I moved to Australia to train with his squad.
A NEW COUNTRY AND TRAINING PLAN
Before Australia, I worked about 50 hours a week and trained around 10 hours, reaching 15 hours as the Ironman approached closer. Now I started to train three times per day and the intensity of the workouts changed a lot. Previously, I couldn’t really do high intensity training because I would get too fatigued when combined with my job and social life. Now, the volume and intensity increased. My body was pretty shocked in the beginning and it was hard for me to accept that I needed to rest and recover in between the sessions. There wasn’t much time to walk into the city, to discover Australia and meet new friends. I was used to running all day from meeting to meeting. Now, I spent most of the days in my bedroom. I was driven and I wanted to make the most out of it and set a new goal.
This whole new lifestyle was such a good way to get to know myself. I really developed as a person and got to know my body and mind. This is what makes me a stronger person and also helps me in the future, whether as a surgeon or not. Training in Australia made me a lot stronger, and in June and July I moved with the squad Sankt Moritz, Switzerland to train at altitude. Everything fell into place when I raced the Ironman Maastricht in my home country and won!
One year after my first Ironman and not even two years after my first sprint triathlon race, I became an Ironman Champion! I returned to Australia at the beginning of this year and now I’m back in Sankt Moritz again to train during summer time. Day in, and day out, I am busy with the sport. It’s such a big adventure and I really enjoy this Ironman journey. I don’t want to look too far ahead, but I think that next year will be the same.
We will see where it ends!
Els Visser is a HOKA ONE ONE athlete.
*Check back on Wednesday next week to read my Q&A with Els about her training and racing.*
You can follow her journey in Ironman via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/elsvisser3, www.twitter.com/elsvissertri and www.facebook/elsvissertriathlete. Visit Els’ website at www.elsvisser.com.