For 75 hours he was lost at sea, yet Rob Hewitt survived to tell of an extraordinary spiritual journey that kept him alive and vibrantly fit to begin a renewed life with his family.
In our series on the spiritual journey, we will travel some of the way with Rob as he ponders his life slipping away from him with each hour that he is not rescued.
Life began for Rob Hewitt living with his grandparents and his mother, of Ngati Kahungunu descent but not really knowing his culture. During overseas visits with the navy Rob would see other cultures that had retained their essence.
Bullying at school and racial slurs in the navy gave him a sense of his identity which he later sharpened through cultural and language classes and through courses on the Treaty of Waitangi. This background and the hard-living environment which he had enjoyed in the navy, was thrown into sharp relief when he found himself alone in the ocean off Mana Island, north of Wellington.
He had been on a recreational dive and was caught in a rip which sent him back to the surface in time to see the boat moving away from him as it picked up other divers.
As the sun set Rob’s spiritual journey began with prayer—not for help but to give thanks, for the beautiful day, ‘for letting me wake up next to Rangiwhiua and the kids’. He asked forgiveness, he thanked God for his time on earth.
‘He acknowledged the elements, Tangaroa, the personification of the sea and Tawhirimatea, god of the winds and storms’ (Hewitt 67).
Exhausted and apprehensive, yet he felt a warm sensation flowing through him. ‘Was this the feeling of being touched by God?’ (68).
Seeing a plane’s light flashing, he imagined the people on board and what they might be thinking.
With Rangi and his family in mind, he promised himself he would not give up. ‘He had too many people to live for’ (70).
A spiritual hurdle
Rob’s journey passed a milestone when, in the doldrums on the second night, he put his face under the water and thought about ending his life. But,recalling ‘all the people I had known’ he flipped over and ‘lay there apologising to God for trying to take his life’ (91).
‘From there I started to take responsibility for myself, which I’d never done before’ (92).
On the third day he was becalmed under a blazing sun and started to feel his face blistering without protection. By then he’d been in the water 56 hours ‘and I’d heard nothing but the sound of my own voice. My hearing was starting to get in synch with nature … no thought, no current, no tide, no wind, no me – just nothing for six hours … and I was at peace … in a mental state of meditation’. (94).
A ‘desperate thirst’ and sea lice had set in but he had pushed himself beyond pain.
Rob’s spiritual journey is best marked by two lists of priorities he had made between the second and third nights of his ordeal. The first, had been loaded with material possessions. This time Rob placed at the top his love for Rangiwhiua and his children.
After a glass of water and a glass of coke, he wanted most love, peace and harmony. As he went through the list he realised that the simpler things in life were the most important.
He started to define himself and for the first time he was confident of who he was (98).
‘The more I understood about Māoritanga, the more I felt connected and that sense of belonging’ (98).
While he was slowly dying he was planning for his future (99).
Hallucinating, he saw clearly his dead grandparents and uncle and one other he didn’t recognise. Was it the father he had never met?
‘I felt balanced spiritually. My life felt like it was out of my hands at that point (108).
Lying in the water, he could see a large tree with lights in its branches. Was this his whakapapa?
Waking on the fourth morning, Rob was astonished to see daylight.
‘Tihei Mauri Ora!!!’ – the sneeze of a newborn but it can also be the last breath.
‘It was about getting rid of my past but breathing again as a new identity. It’s the first thing you say and … the last … (109).
With his organs in danger of shutting down from absorbing so much salt, Rob was unable to distinguish between reality and hallucination but he believes this latter state broke down the last of his ego forcing him to make the final, crucial choices.
‘I believe that everyone goes through a journey of finding out who they are. At various points in time and life you’ll get touched by God, whether it’s witnessing the birth of a child or the death of a family member. … in that time in the doldrums, it felt like I was back in the womb of nature herself’ (112).
His dreams presented him with two versions of himself – ‘Rob one’ with his family at home and ‘Rob two’, being rescued by a bunch of young, attractive Swedish women in a yacht. Which one?
He chose his family.
‘For the first time I’d made the right decision.’
Rob had travelled a long way on his spiritual journey in the 75 hours it took to reach the point where he was ready to start a renewed life with his family. The rest of the story is history and well documented in his book. His dramatic rescue dominated the headlines for several days. Having his mates in the rescue crew around him again, Rob reflected that laughter was ‘one of God’s great medicines’ (117).
(Rob Hewitt with Aaron Smale: Treading Water Wellington, Huia Publishers, 2007 – RRP $30 at all good bookstores or www.huia.co.nz).