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A maritime disaster

The first Monday in April is said to be an inauspicious day for any vessel to set sail; the reason being, as Matt Lewis explains in his new book, that it was the day that Cain slew Abel.

It's easy to arch an eyebrow at such a maritime superstition, but Lewis for one knows it is well-founded.

In April 1998, not long after completing his masters in marine biology at Aberdeen University, he became a scientific observer on a deep-sea fishing boat, the Sudur Havid (pictured). With 38 men on board, it set sail from Cape Town, South Africa, on the first Monday in April, bound for the Antarctic.

All went well until Saturday, June 6 - an exceptionally rough day. Huge waves pounded the boat and flooded the factory deck. The ship's skipper and fishing master were deaf to all entreaties to stop fishing and deal with the crisis. "Other boats are still fishing," growled the skipper. "You don't hear them complaining."

The pumps failed. Eventually, the starboard side of the factory was six feet deep in grey murk. The vessel itself began to list. When the order came to abandon ship, one of the four life-rafts failed to deploy.

Lewis made sure that all of his colleagues were off the boat before leaping into the sea and joining 15 others in a life-raft. Almost immediately, it came close to being sunk by the doomed ship, but was finally blown clear.

Inside the raft, the men were up to their waists in sea-water. They had no paddles and no means of communication. Help for them, and for the 14 men in a second big raft, was a long way off. The nearest helicopters were 700 miles away, on the Falklands.

The rafts drifted helplessly on the bitterly cold Southern Ocean. But in time the Isla Camila, a Chilean-registered fishing vessel, came across the rafts and took the survivors aboard. In all, 17 of the the Sudur Havid's original 38 crew perished.

Lewis ends this gripping, well-written book with some of his thoughtful reflections on the errors that were made on board his ship, and with an extract from a report of a Court of Marine inquiry into its sinking.

Lewis now lives in Aberdeen with his wife, Corinne, and their two children, a boy and a girl. His daughter, who was born in July, 2009, is named Camila, in fulfilment of a heartfelt promise Lewis made to the Chilean fisherman who plucked him from the sea and saved his life.

Last Man Off: A True Story Of Disaster And Survival On The Antarctic Seas by Matt Lewis is published by Viking, priced £16.99.

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