Els Visser: "A shipwreck changed my life forever"
I was just about to finish my medical degree when a shipwreck in the Pacific changed the course of my life forever…
In summer 2014 I finished my fifth of six years of medical studies at Utrecht University. As a medical student you can organise your own internships abroad, and that summer I chose to do gynaecology and obstetrics in Bali.
I had one week left of my trip and had just done my dive certificate. I was on the island Lombok and I’d heard about the beautiful dives around Flores so I thought I’d go on a boat from Lombok to Flores, have a nice dive, then fly back to Amsterdam.
I was a backpacker and didn’t have much money, and I thought on a simple boat there would be a better chance of meeting other backpackers.
There were five crew members, and 20 tourists from France, the UK, New Zealand, Spain, Italy and Netherlands.
On the first evening after dinner we hit a reef. The water was only one metre deep so we could actually see the reef, and I started wondering if the captain of the boat knew where he was going. Another boat came with a rope to get us off the reef. The crew checked the boat and decided we didn’t have any damage so we continued the trip.
On the second day we were island hopping and snorkeling and hiking. During the day I was seasick and vomiting, and thinking boat trips are not for me anymore. That night we went to sleep at about 8pm. The water was rough and the waves were high, so we asked the crew members if they could drive slower because it was impossible to sleep.
Then the window above my bed broke because the waves had smashed into it, and water was coming inside. I was laying next to a Spanish guy who was an experienced sailor and I was asking him if this was normal, and he kind of said, ‘I don’t know, it’s very rough, but probably the crew know what they are doing.’ But I had a bad gut feeling so I put my life jacket on.
At about 11pm all the noise of the boat stopped and we were relieved because we thought the crew had listened to us. Ten seconds later our guide came upstairs and said, ‘Everyone put your life jackets on, there’s a hole in the boat’. The hole was exactly where we had hit the reef. That was the moment we were like, ‘Okay this is a serious problem.’
"I knew straightaway that this would be my end."
We were all really shocked and it was like, ‘Okay we have to alarm people that we are sinking’, but it was clear pretty quick that the crew members didn’t have equipment on board to alarm people and all our mobile phones were out of service so we couldn’t reach anyone.
I knew straightaway that this would be my end.
We were waiting on the deck for about an hour and there was more and more water coming in. I remember I went back to my bed to drink a bottle of water because I knew that probably I would be in the ocean for the next day so I better hydrate myself. I also took one of my jumpers because I wanted to stay as warm as possible. I put my passport in my money belt because I was thinking, ‘I am probably going to die but at least they can identify me if I have my passport’. Then I took my memory card out of my camera and I thought, ‘Maybe if I survive this I can still make a photo book’. That was all I took.
It was about midnight now and had just got dark.
So we were just waiting until the sun came up. All of a sudden a really big wave smashed us all into the ocean, and that was my biggest moment of panic because it was so unexpected. I was under the water and I didn’t know where to go or how to get above the water and I really thought I was going to drown. Then an arm pulled me into a little lifeboat.
We had one lifeboat without a motor or a paddle but it was something for six people to sit in. Other people were sitting on the roof of the sinking boat or were in the ocean around the lifeboat, and we were just waiting for morning. Sometimes we would see a plane and we would go crazy with our life whistles, waving and screaming, but they were passenger planes not rescue planes. There were all these little moments of hope that maybe the crew had alarmed people even though they couldn’t. The crew was with us but it was very difficult to communicate because only the guide could speak English.
We were mostly silent apart from like, ‘What’s the time?’ or ‘Do you think they alarmed people?’ Stupid questions, and we didn’t know the answers. A lot of people were really scared about sharks. The ocean temperature was high, 26/27 degrees, and that saved our lives, even though I was freezing cold.
At around 6am the sun started to rise and I could see an island in the distance. I was kind of, ‘Oh, this is a way to survive, this is the only option.’ We started arguing and discussing because some people wanted to stay and others wanted to swim, and they said, ‘Els you’re crazy, look at the current, it’s coming away from the island.’
But I was thinking I can’t survive a second night in the ocean because I was so cold and losing energy, and the day before I didn’t eat anything because I felt so sick and we’d seen no other traffic on the ocean, so we were just waiting to die. I thought, ‘Probably if I swim I die but at least I will have tried’.
So at 10/11am I jumped in the sea and started swimming, just to see if I could make progress. I was with a lady from New Zealand called Gaylene and a French guy and we swam away pretty fast. After about 100 meters we looked at each other and just said, ‘Okay, we’re going’.
There was one other girl from Germany who came to me and said, ‘Oh Els are you going?’ and I said, ‘We are’ and she swam back and got her friend and they came with us. It was kind of an impulse. Once we’d taken that decision we went for it. We didn’t say goodbye to the rest we just started swimming and swimming and swimming, on our backs, with our faces in the sun. I was still really cold and I needed the sun on my face to stay warm. I had my arms folded across my life jackets and I was making leg strokes.
It was just swimming, swimming, swimming for the entire day. Gaylene and I were faster than the other three and we got separated. It was very hard to stay in one group because the waves were so high, and we had to use the whistles to get back together. Eventually we got broken up from the others.
We didn’t really talk other than to sometimes say, ‘Are we getting closer?’ We were just swimming, swimming, swimming.
After about five hours we kind of got the idea that we were close because we could see individual trees. After about six or seven hours we realised, ‘Okay we are getting there’. I was thinking, ‘Okay maybe we can reach this island before sunset and we can dry our bodies in the last sun rays of the day and get some heat on us’. So I started to believe I would survive.
Physically I had no pains at all, no cramps or anything, my body was just so full of adrenaline. When we had about 500 metres to go the current got really strong so we had to swim on our fronts using our arms for the first time and it was really hard. Then we came into calm water, and when my feet touched the beach I felt how sore my legs were. I could barely stand.
We gave each other a hug and I was really happy but then Gaylene said, ‘Look around you, this is a volcanic island, there are no people, there is nothing here, so we have to survive this island as well’. So I went straight back into survival mode. We didn’t rest at all.
"Before we slept we decided to drink our own urine. We collected it in some empty bottles that had washed in with the tide."
I had no shoes on, just a piece of underwear, a t-shirt and a jumper, and we started looking for water. We were walking around for maybe an hour or something, and we made arrows on the beach with rocks so that if anyone else arrived on the beach they would know we were walking in that direction.
We found some fresh water in this very little water hole and we drank some, but it was maybe half a cup so it was nothing. That was also kind the moment that the sunset started so it wasn’t very light anymore, and because the island was just rocks and I was walking in bare feet and my legs were so sore, we thought maybe now it’s better to rest and have a good sleep.
So we found a sheltered space near the ocean so we could still possibly see boats passing by. Before we slept we decided to drink our own urine. We collected it in some empty bottles that had washed in with the tide.
"We saw a boat passing by so we started waving and screaming with our life jackets and a long stick, but that boat kept going."
We slept on this island, called Sangeang Api, and we were so sunburnt but that sort of helped us stay warm because our skin felt so warm. We woke with the sunrise and we knew water was the highest priority so I went looking for some while Gaylene stayed by the shore to look into the ocean. There were some flip flops that had washed in with the tide so I was walking around in two left flip flops, one size 40 one size 45, but at least I had something for my feet. That morning we saw wild pigs so we knew there was food as well as water.
Pretty early in the morning we saw a boat passing by so we started waving and screaming with our life jackets and a long stick, but that boat kept going and going until it wasn’t visible anymore.
I was disheartened but I was also just so happy that I wasn’t in the ocean anymore. I was happy to be on that island even for a week, I felt safe with Gaylene who was a pretty experienced woman and I trusted her.
Later that morning the same boat was coming back and it was really driving towards us. I started waving again and jumping. Then a really small boat came off the big boat and right towards me, and we were rescued!
The boat belonged to a diving company called Mermaid who were on this big cruise ship full of passengers and tourists. I was so grateful I was hugging people and crying and showing all my emotions.
It was a five star ship so we had warm showers, clothing, nice beds and a western breakfast so eggs, bacon, sausages, yoghurt, everything. I was like, ‘Oh wow’, attacking breakfast. Gaylene said, ‘Maybe you have to be a bit careful with what you eat right now because you haven’t eaten for two or three days, maybe just have some toast.’ I was like, I want bacon and eggs!
We tried to find the others in the boat but we realised it was like looking for a little dot in a big ocean so we thought we better just alert the police on land so they can go out with a big rescue team. In the end they found everyone apart from the two Spanish passengers, the sailors.
The week after the crash I was home for a week and then I started straight away with my studies, which I finished at the end of 2015. For the first few weeks I was very isolated and in survival mode. I was kind of a robot. I didn’t have any emotions. I was traumatised but not in a way that really affected my daily life. I had flashbacks and couldn’t sleep, or was awake very early in the morning, and very aware of everything happening around me.
I had a mental coach and I had some sessions with her, and she advised me to start writing my feelings, but I’m not really a writer, and what really helped me was going out for a run and really clearing my mind.
This was the first time I’d ever really done any running. I played tennis in high school, but during my studies I didn’t do anything, maybe once a month I would do a 5k run just to feel like I’d done something.
I signed up for a half marathon and it wasn’t fast at all, maybe 1 hour 40 minutes. But I knew that I was kind of a natural runner. It felt easy even though, my time, it wasn’t impressive at all.
I did my first marathon in October 2015. I ran 3 hours 30 minutes, which wasn’t impressive either.
I entered my first triathlon in August 2016, in Amsterdam, a very small and local race. I did the 750-metre swim, 20k ride and 5k run in just over 1 hour which felt quite easy, and I won that race. More importantly, I had a great day with my friends and enjoyed the triathlon community. I decided that day that I wanted to do another race!
The day after that my colleague in hospital started telling me about Ironman races. He sent me a YouTube video and I thought these people were crazy, doing a 4km swim, a 180km ride and a full marathon.
I started watching this video over and over and saw all the emotions and dedication and thought, ‘It must be so amazing to get that feeling’. I thought, ‘If I want to do this, now is the time’ because I was doing my PHD so didn’t have night or weekend shifts.
So I entered Ironman Switzerland for the summer of 2017. I had 10 months to train and I thought, ‘Okay let’s take it seriously’. I joined a local triathlon club, found a coach and started training. And slowly my life changed from being a girl who liked clubbing and having social dinners with friends to training every day. But I really enjoyed it. I was committed to that new goal.
Everyone at the local triathlon club was confused that I was doing an Ironman in 10 months because I didn’t even have cycling clothes. I was riding my bike in my running shorts and running shoes.
"The professional girls started 10 minutes ahead of us, and on the second bike lap I started to overtake some of them. I got kind of confused like, ‘Maybe they’ve got a flat tyre?’"
I ran the Rotterdam Marathon in April 2017 in 3 hours 4 mins, so that was really good.
Then I had an Olympic distance race that’s a quarter of the full Ironman, and I won that race.
Then at the end of July came my first Ironman and it was a great day. I was the first amateur, and finished fourth overall. The professional girls started 10 minutes ahead of us, and on the second bike lap I started to overtake some of them. I got kind of confused like, ‘Maybe they’ve got a flat tyre?’
After that my coach said that if I focus on the sport and take it easy on the job I could achieve great results. And I thought, ‘Well, because of what I experienced in Indonesia, when I get an opportunity I go for it’.
So I put my job on hold, and my first professional race was six months later in Australia. I got my pro licence and went to Australia in August 2017 to join a triathlon group over there because I wanted to be surrounded by the best athletes and have the best coach and train in the best environment.
I was kind of a legend at my local triathlon club and they would all be like, ‘Wow, Els you’re doing awesome’. When I arrived in Australia they were like, ‘How do you think you can be a professional, you can’t even swim or bike or run?’. But that was good for me as well to see where I really had to go.
In December 2017 I did my first professional Ironman in Australia and I wasn’t ready at all. I made many mistakes, like I didn’t eat on the bike so was completely out of nutrition, and got a lot of stomach problems. It was bad.
But the accident actually really helps me in difficult moments in races. If I’m really in a bad patch and I think, ‘I can’t get to the finish line’, I know my body and mind are both so strong and I can just keep going.
In August 2018 I raced the Ironman Maastricht-Limburg in the Netherlands. I was really prepared and it was my first win as a professional.
The World Championships in Kona in Hawaii every October is the peak of our sport. You have to qualify to get into that and it’s the 40 best men and women on the start line. I didn’t qualify in 2018 but finished 16th in 2019.
The race was cancelled for 2020 so 2021 is my main focus, but first I have to qualify. I say my aim is the podium, but of course I want to win!
I’m always fine with the swimming leg of an Ironman if it’s in flat water, but when it’s choppy I can panic a bit and get back into what happened in Indonesia and I can freeze. As soon as I’m aware of it I try to block it, but it’s not always that easy. I practice a lot in open water so every time I feel more confident. It’s just a matter of keeping swimming in open water to overcome it.
I don’t think I’ll ever go back to being a doctor. With the combination of being an athlete, a doctor and having an audience, I want to do public speaking and motivate people to live healthy and active lifestyles.