Josh Marsh was holiday in the Philippines in 2012 when a boat he was on capsized off the coast of Manila. For the next 52 hours, Josh, his friend Tom, and Tom's dad were stranded on board with no shade and no supplies. Their tour guide, Ruben, dove from the boat and tried to swim to shore for help. It was the middle of December, with temperatures hovering around 31 degrees. Ships passed without stopping. They thought they were going to die.
With a few years between himself and this very close call, Josh sat down to tell VICE what it's like to survive being lost at sea. We talk dehydration-induced hallucination, sharks, and why he decided to save a bottle of Tanduay rum.
VICE: Hey Josh, so just to set the scene: you were visiting the Philippines a couple of years ago with your friend, Tom, and his dad. Why did you decide to take the boat out that day?
Josh Marsh: We were staying in Banton, an island near Manila. The plan was to head to Marinduque, which is about a 40-kilometre crossing. We were warned of rough weather and waves, but our guide insisted it would be okay to get across. Once we took the boat out, the weather turned quickly, and the engine started taking on water. Eventually, it conked out and we started bucketing water. We drifted sideways and were picked up by a big wave, it capsized the boat pretty quickly. We were all floating in the ocean trying to figure out what happened. Then we started grabbing whatever we could find floating up from the boat. The first thing I grabbed was a bottle of rum…
Wait, the first thing you grabbed was a bottle of rum?
Yeah. It was decent rum, and it was the first thing I saw floating up.
Was it expensive?
About $6 a bottle.
What else did you grab?
Our guide, Ruben, grabbed a kitchen knife and dove underwater to cut the [boat's shade] canopy free so we wouldn't be dragged under. Then we climbed to the hull of the boat and sat there trying to figure out what to do. Ruben decided to grab a diesel canister, tie it to his wrist [so he could float], and swim to shore to get help. The island was pretty far off by this point. We told him it wasn't a good idea, but he was adamant. He started swimming out to the island. We kept an eye on him for as long as we could until he disappeared behind the waves.
Did you think about swimming to the island too?
I thought about it. The other option didn't seem great—sitting on the boat, waiting to be rescued. The island was in the distance but it didn't look impossible to reach. It was one of those decisions you have to make. But I decided to stay on the boat with Tom and his dad.
So it was just the three of you on the boat?
At this point, what was going through your mind?
We were basically just waiting for Ruben to make contact with someone. The hope was that he'd reached the island and was sending help.
"We had no phones, flairs, or lifejackets to signal anyone. Ruben was the only one who knew we were out there."
Do you know what happened to Ruben?
He was never found. He drowned at sea.
What was it like once the sun went down?
The first night was terrifying. There was no moonlight. We were cold and hungry and had no idea what was lying beneath the water. We could hear the waves coming, but we couldn't see them. That was probably the scariest thing: knowing that if a wave knocked you off the boat, you probably wouldn't have the strength to get back on. We were so physically drained… We knew once nightfall hit rescue wouldn't happen until the next morning, if at all. We had no light on the boat so we just sat there, in the dark. The waves were relentless and we were deliriously tired. That night bioluminescence lit up the water surrounding the boat. It was actually really beautiful. [There were these] tiny creatures in the ocean emitting this strange glow. We were all transfixed.
Were you okay, physically?
My leg was pretty sore from an accident I had earlier on the island—the leg had an open wound. So, in the water, I was pretty worried about sharks. But once the sun came up, our spirits were up in the hope of rescue.
Did any ships pass you in the morning?
Two ships passed us. We tried to flag them down to no avail. We were trying to signal them with a tiny camera flash, but we kept dropping into the gullies of the waves. It was a long shot. We were pretty defeated.
Once the sun came up, was it hot? I'd imagine the sun could be pretty full on out there without any shade.
I was very badly sunburnt, and it was impossible to keep hydrated as we didn't have much water. The heat stroke combined with sleep deprivation made it very difficult to get a grasp on reality.
So you started losing touch with reality?
Once the sun fell on the second night, I started having these vivid hallucinations. I saw park benches, palm trees, and people in the water. I saw cars and marinas. Things I might have wanted to see: Images of salvation. I kept thinking: If I can just swim out to that park bench then everything will be okay. I kept slipping into micro sleeps. I remember falling into the water. I drifted through the ocean for a long time before I felt a hand grasp my neck. It was Tom. He heard me go in and was pulling me to the surface. I was lucky. It was so dark. He must've heard the splash of me [hitting] the water.
Did you have any other visions?
The most vivid hallucination I had was of a marina. I thought our boat was drifting directly into one. There were two big rock walls on either side. In the distance, I saw a car with people standing next to it, waving. There were all these blinding lights coming from the headlights. I screamed out to the people for rescue. It was incredible. I thought we were saved. But as we moved closer, the waves began to transform into giant, solid concrete walls. I thought we were going to crash right into them and that the boat would be destroyed. When the sun rose, the waves had eased again. I thought that during the night, we had made contact with a hotel concierge, and that he was sending help. I thought we'd anchored at a hotel. I turned to Tom and he told me, "Look around, we're in the middle of the ocean."
That's when I really broke down. I gave up all hope, and tried to wrestle with the concept of dying out there.
What happened the next morning?
This huge cargo ship materialised in front of us. We screamed and screamed, and tried to flag them down with an orange tarp we were waving around. The ship looked like it was passing us. We couldn't believe they didn't see us. But then the ship sounded its horn and began to turn towards us. They dropped a cargo net out and we dove off the boat. We climbed aboard the cargo ship. The crew were incredible. They gave us clothes and food and took us to the nearest port. They saved our lives.
Do you still have the bottle of rum?
Nah, I threw it overboard at some point. But Tom brought me back a bottle from the Philippines a few years later. It's still on the shelf.
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