Great Survival Stories: The Robertson Family

A family’s nautical dream turns into a 38-day nightmare of survival

In 1971, the Robertson family –- Dougal and his wife Lyn, their children Ann, Douglas, Neill, and Sandy — set off on a 13m wooden boat called the Lucette, that they had purchased with their life savings. The idea was to voyage around the Atlantic, through the Caribbean, and across the Panama Canal to the Pacific side. They did so for a year and a half, then continued toward the Galapagos, learning from the “university of life”.

One of the daughters, Ann, 18, left the expedition in the Caribbean. In Panama, they took on a young hitchhiker named Robin Williams.

Shortly after, they ran into trouble. Some 300km west of the Galapagos Islands, en route to the South Pacific, a pod of killer whales struck the boat.

“The whole boat shook and the keel must’ve cracked,” said one son, Douglas, later. “There was a splintering noise of wood cracking. I heard this splashing noise behind me, and there were three killer whales following the boat.”

Although killer whales are not known to attack people, the teenaged Douglas feared for his life. But the foundering boat was the real danger. They scrambled on board an inflatable life raft, to which they hitched a small, three-metre dinghy, as the Lucette sank beneath them.

The life raft was a tight fit for the six of them and they needed to use a bellows to keep it afloat. But the bellows eventually became useless, and they had to keep inflating it by mouth. But after 16 days, even that was ineffective, and the six of them had to crowd into the little dingy.

Father Dougal, a retired mariner, tried to sail the dingy toward the centre of the Pacific, to catch a current back to land.

They had managed to grab water before abandoning their original vessel. They also collected rainwater and drank the blood of turtles when that ran out. They ate meagre rations of bread, biscuits, fruit, and also turtle flesh.

“Turtle was the mainstay of our diet,” said Douglas.

Somehow, they all survived for 38 days before a passing Japanese fishing trawler spotted their distress flares.

Robertson family at the moment of rescue

The moment of rescue.


“I never regretted the trip, even in the darkest hours,” said Douglas.

Their father wrote a book about their ordeal called Survive the Savage Sea, which was later made into a truly terrible movie starring Ali MacGraw. Douglas, feeling that his father had not given the rest of the family enough credit, later wrote his own account, called The Last Voyage of the Lucette.