Shipwrecked backpacker who swam for hours in shark-infested waters drank her own urine to survive

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A backpacker who swam for eight hours in shark-infested waters after being shipwrecked in Indonesia drank her own urine to survive the ordeal.

Els Visser, 30, was studying to be a doctor when her boat sank during the trip of a lifetime in the summer of 2014, as she sailed between the islands of Lombok and Flores.

After a terrifying night treading water in the Flores Sea, she swam for eight hours to the nearest island – an uninhabited active volcano – before being rescued by a passing cruise ship the next morning.

Now Els, of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, has made a virtue of her traumatic experience by honing her survival instincts and competing in gruelling Ironman competitions, saying: “I experienced how strong the human body is.

“When I’m racing, I know there is always a way that I can get to the finish line, no matter how much pain I’m in, because I’ve experienced what we are capable of.”

When Els, who was studying at the University of Utrecht, finished a gynaecology and obstetrics internship in Bali in 2014, she booked a four-day boat trip between the Indonesian islands of Lombok and Flores, where she planned to go diving as a fitting finale before returning home.

But on the first night, the boat hit a reef and on the second, rough seas left her fearing for her life.

She said: “By 8pm, there were some really rough waves and one smashed through the window above my bed.

“I was so scared and anxious that something was going to happen, I already had my lifejacket on.”

Sadly, her instincts were correct as, at around 11pm, the boat started sinking – miles from land.

Terrified, the 20 international tourists and five crew members had to take turns either sitting in a lifeboat made for six people, treading water, or sitting on the roof of the sinking vessel.



Els backpacking in the Gili islands, Indonesia

Els recalled: “We didn’t have any phone signal, so I knew straight away we couldn’t raise the alarm and no rescue was imminent.”

She added: “We were in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the night and, at that point, I couldn’t see how we were going to survive.”

Almost drowning when she was dragged under by a huge wave, Els feared she might die from hypothermia, although, fortunately, the warm water – which stayed at 26C at night – stopped that from happening.

She said: “Whenever we saw a plane going overhead we started screaming and blowing the whistles on our lifejackets, but it was a passenger aircraft, not a rescue plane.”

“By this point, I was just feeling completely hopeless. All I could think about was how I would die and how long it would take,” she added.

“There was a lot of silence – I was in survival mode.”

When the longest night of her life finally came to an end, the dawn brought with it a glimmer of hope, when Els saw a speck of land on the horizon.

With tensions rising in the group, at around 10am, she and four other passengers took the risky decision to swim towards land – despite the very real possibility they could die getting there.

She said: “Once I took the decision to swim, I felt a lot better, because I could do something and distract myself from the negative thoughts.

“I had no idea if the land was getting closer, but I had no control over that.”

Despite her epic swim, Els had never been particularly sporty – saying the most she had swam was 20 lengths of an Olympic-sized pool.

She says a primal force took over as she pounded her way through the waves, swimming on her back, with her arms folded and kicking her legs.



Els on the beach in Seminyak with her favourite beer, Bintang

“As human beings, we are so strong physically and mentally that we can overcome a lot of things we never thought possible,” she said. “During that swim, I didn’t feel pain at all, even though I was exhausted. I was so full of adrenalin.”

At its deepest point, the Flores Sea plunges to almost 17,000ft, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and is home to various species of sharks – but Els blotted out the potential threats and concentrated on reaching the shore.

She said: “All I could do was swim. I didn’t want to know about anything else.

“Some of the others were looking to see what was swimming underneath us, but I blocked it out.”

Separated from three of the others as they swam, by sunset, Els and another boat passenger – a woman from New Zealand – finally reached their destination, many miles from the shipwreck.

But it was out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they had landed on Sangeang Island – an eight-mile-wide, 6,394ft tall active volcano, which was uninhabited.

All Els had were the clothes on her back and a money belt containing her camera’s memory card – which she took in case she survived – and her passport, should her body need to be identified.

As exhaustion kicked in, she and her fellow swimmer found a sheltered rocky outcrop near the sea to sleep in – but not before deciding to drink their own urine, using empty bottles that had washed ashore.

She said: “We blocked out what it was from our minds – it was just some hydration. Thankfully, it was still pretty clear, so there wasn’t a strong taste.”

And at least she had more peace than she had experienced the previous night.

She said: “I looked up at this big sky full of stars, thinking how crazy and unreal it all was.”

And the next morning brought another fortuitous find.

Els explained: “Wearing two flip flops I found washed up, I explored the island and found fresh water. I was so relieved, because it meant we could spend at least another two weeks there.”



The boat Els was on that sank

She added: “Also, because there was water, there were also animals, like wild pigs, so we knew that if we needed to, we had something to eat to survive.”

Luckily, her time as a real-life Robinson Crusoe was cut short at 11am, when a passing cruise ship spotted her and her companion’s frantic waving and rescued them – along with the three other swimmers, who had made it to the other side of the volcanic island.

Els said: “Once we boarded the ship, the survival mode wore off and I became so emotional, I just cried and hugged everyone.”

Extremely sunburnt and bedraggled, she tucked into a lavish breakfast and had a shower, before eventually making it home to The Netherlands and telling her shocked family what had happened, before it made the international news.

In the following days and weeks, Els had flashbacks and could not sleep.

She said: “I felt strange that I was still living. I couldn’t understand why I was living my normal life, being a student again, when I still felt like I had to fight to survive.”



Els when she arrived at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol after her ordeal

She added: “I remember being in a club in Amsterdam with one of my closest friends and all my emotions flooded out – I simply didn’t want to be there.”

Fortunately, therapy helped her to conquer her demons and Els, who is single, also took up running, as a way to clear her mind.

Bitten by the fitness bug, she entered her first marathon in October 2015, followed by her first triathlon in August 2016 in Amsterdam.

Swimming 750m, completing a 20km bike ride and a 5km run, she won the local competition in just over an hour – spurring her on to a more serious challenge.

She said: “One of my colleagues at UMC Utrecht hospital, where I worked, told me about Ironman races – full distance triathlons, which are really tough – and showed me some videos.

“I was so moved by all the emotions from the triathletes finishing a race like that over these extreme distances, that I wanted to feel that way, too.”

So, after months of training, Els entered Ironman Switzerland in the summer of 2017 and came fourth, giving her the confidence to go professional. Els moved to Brisbane, Australia, in August 2017 to get better coaching and entered her first professional Ironman competition that December.

Initially, Els lived off her savings, but in 2017 and 2018 alone, she won an incredible $30,000 (£21,911) in prize money – $12,000 (£8,764) of which came from a race in August 2018, where she placed in the top spot for the first time.

From there, she bagged her first sponsorship deal in early 2019, followed by others with shoe company Hoka One One, bike company Cervelo – and Red Bull in February 2020.

The pinnacle of Els’ career so far came in 2019, when she finished 16th at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii – the peak of the sport – where she swam 3.8km outdoors, cycled 180km and ran 42km, crossing the finish line in nine hours, 18 minutes and 42 seconds.

“When I was in the water, it reminded me of being in Indonesia for a split second – but I was then so focused on my goal that it pushed it out of my mind,” she said.

With Covid-19 meaning the Ironman World Championships were cancelled for 2020, Els is already training hard for 2021.

She is swimming 6km a day at her local public swimming pool, which is allowed to stay open for professional athletes – a fraction of her monumental journey in 2014.



Els winning Ironman Maastricht in August 2018

But she says her epic Indonesian odyssey remains her inspiration, as she aims for a podium finish in Hawaii.

Els, who splits her time between Australia and The Netherlands and came back home in September last year, and qualified as a surgeon in November 2019 but is putting that career on hold to pursue her sporting ambitions, said: “For two days, I really believed I was going to die.”

“But now, I get a lot of power and self-belief out of what happened to me, even though it was such an extreme and hard experience.

“I’m trying to live my life to the fullest, and make the most out of every day.”



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