Roz Lunn Reviews John Volanthen's Book on the Thai Cave Rescue

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Thai Navy seals at the start of the search

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Thirteen Lessons that Saved Thirteen Lives: The Thai Cave Rescue, by John Volanthen, Aurum Press, £20, ISBN: 9780711266094   

The most positive thing that globally captured the imagination and hearts of millions of people in the last few years has got to be the Thai cave rescue. For a handful of days the world watched, waited, and held its breath, as the frantic search and resulting extrication mission unfolded before our eyes.

Three years on, we now get to learn some more inside secrets about this audacious rescue from one of the main protagonists. John Volanthen has written Thirteen Lessons that Saved Thirteen Lives. His book successfully intertwines how his previous cave explorations enabled him to do his job properly in Thailand.  

'Cave exploration is sometimes about failure, but in a good way' – John Volanthen, Thirteen Lives

In a nutshell, 12 boys and their coach (the ‘Wild Boars’ football team) got stuck on the wrong side of a flooded cave sump in June 2018. No one could have possibly made up this incredible tale, and the tragic and triumphant twists and turns it took. How a team of specialist volunteers from around the world came together and pulled off an improbable feat in Tham Luang cave, while pushing the boundary of anaesthesia techniques. The extraordinary and superhuman effort by many, above and below the surface, saved 13 souls. 

This is the kind of ripping yarn that Hollywood positively relishes, and in fact, Oscar-winning Ron Howard is currently filming ‘Thirteen Lives’ in Australia, with Viggo Mortensen cast as Rick Stanton and Colin Farrel as John Volanthen.

'…during cave rescues, events rarely unfold in the way you would expect…' John Volanthen, Thirteen Lives

Jump back to that hot summer of 2018, just after the boys were reported missing. I fully expected that British cave divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen would be flying out to Thailand, because they were perfect for this job. They just needed the formal request for assistance to come through to the British Cave Rescue Council. As the Americans would say 'this wasn’t their first rodeo'. Both men had dived together for at least 14 years – jointly completing several expeditions, rescues, and body recoveries. 

Those of us in the UK who were privy to this information kept quiet during the first crucial few days and fielded all media enquiries to the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC). They ended up being totally overwhelmed. It was important that we let key figures, such as respected cave explorer and author Martyn Farr, award-winning cave cinematographer Gavin Newman, and BCRC vice-chair, Bill Whitehouse talk to the mainstream media.

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The British rescue team arriving in Thailand (left to right)  Richard Stanton, John Volanthen, Robert Harper and Vern Unsworth (ThaiPBS / Facebook)

The necessary, potentially grisly task didn’t need the added burden of a ton of press coverage and speculation. However, no one had thought to tell the mainstream media this. From the moment they landed in Thailand, Rick, John, and caver Rob Harper were plastered all over the news. As the days progressed, the coverage became more prolific and dominated the headlines. I could see in television reports that John Volanthen was getting frustrated with copious questions as he stomped up to Tham Luang cave in full kit. His pithy response to the reporters was 'we’ve got a job to do'

It was fascinating watching divers who didn’t understand, pound their keyboards in diving Facebook groups, questioning why Rick, John, and Rob had been flown out to Thailand to assist. What on earth was Rick wearing? He obviously knew nothing about diving because he didn’t possess any decent kit. After all, he had what looked like a rubber ring bungeed to his back! And what could two middle-aged men and a pensioner do anyway? How would they possibly be of any help? 

Meanwhile in Thailand John and Rick were finding the cave conditions exceptionally dangerous. In ‘Thirteen Lives’ John recalls a conversation he had with Rick. 'It’s not looking good, is it?' Rick nodded somberly and replied 'We’re done, aren’t we?' Except they weren’t.

'Given the way in which caves could flood and people often panicked, I knew that a search and rescue operation of the kind we were undertaking sometimes transformed into body recovery efforts' – John Volanthen, Thirteen Lives

Jump forward to Monday, 2 July, 2018. I’d just come off the M5 in Birmingham and was stuck in traffic on a roundabout. BBC Radio 4 was on in the car. It’s funny how you remember where you were when you hear something really important in your life. The five o’clock headlines for PM were due to be broadcast, and the next thing I heard was a very calm, clear professional voice asking 'How many of you? Thirteen? Brilliant!'

What the heck? John Volanthen – who was meant to be in a Thai cave – was right there in my car! I was taken aback while being immediately struck by the succinctness of his question. That now-iconic phrase. Four plain English words asking the children the most important question the world wanted to know. Up there with Neil Armstrong’s 'One small step for man'.

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One of the first images of the boys after they were discovered (Photo: Facebook)

It was the tenth day. None of us had expected that John and Rick would find the ‘Wild Boars’ alive and reasonably well. Frankly, it was being quietly discussed behind the scenes by various people that ‘the rescue’ would be a grim body recovery. As the world celebrated that 'it was job done', John, Rick, and several of us knew it was just the start of an exceedingly hard mission. 

'Choose the simplest possible solution. "Better" is the enemy of "good enough" '   John Volanthen, Thirteen Lives

It was now time for me to get scribbling, and I reported for X-Ray mag: 'This is a challenging rescue, and it has not been helped, because it is Monsoon season. The weather factor cannot be under-estimated. If it stays dry and the cave system is successfully pumped clear of water, this will positively aid the rescue.

'The group could be dived out, however, this is a high-risk solution. It is a very long swim of 90-odd minutes and counting, in cold water, tight passageways and very poor/nil visibility.

‘Although water levels have dropped, the diving conditions remain difficult. Any attempt to dive the boys and their coach out will not be taken lightly because there are significant technical challenges and risks to consider, stated a British Cave Rescue Council Spokesman.

'Rick Stanton and John Volanthen described this open circuit scuba dive as “gnarly”. Between them, they have more than 60 years of hardcore, extreme cave diving experience under their belt. In this instance, "gnarly" is being used in a very understated British way, and can be translated into everyday language as pretty dire, awful, difficult, unpleasant, grim, and awkward.'

'I counted them all out, and I counted them all back.'  Brian Hanrahan, reporting on the 1982 Falklands Conflict

And so the rollercoaster reporting ride began for me. I knew most of the main characters involved. Some are friends, some are friendly colleagues. I followed the same ethos as the respected journalist Brian Hanrahan when he covered the 1982 Falklands Conflict, acutely aware of my duty to the rescue personnel, while still writing as accurately as possible. Somehow, and I am still not sure how I ended up at my mother’s home for the Thai cave rescue. She religiously fed me tea and toast around the clock, as I followed the story, and was quietly briefed by key personnel involved in the UK end of it. It meant that my stories for X-Ray Mag had good information. 

After covering the unprecedented rescue mission I wanted to hear about the Thai cave rescue from John Volanthen’s point of view. I was fortunate enough to be in an exclusive audience in a very packed room in Somerset when John gave his first talk, along with fellow Thai cave rescue diver Chris Jewell, in September 2018. I left with a head full of questions.

'Recall the pain of success. Acknowledge the effort required'   John Volanthen, Thirteen Lives

As a co-founder and organiser of EUROTEK – the European advanced technical diving conference – I can wholly identify with the above comment about the pain and effort of success. It resonates. Funnily enough most of my dealings with John have been around event logistics. Every time I have spoken with John over the years I have noticed he has no ego and this comes across in ‘Thirteen Lives’. John is always polite, succinct. A private serious man who just gets on with it, while possessing a great sense of the ridiculous. Do you remember the ‘Shaun the Sheep’ T-shirt he was wearing at London Heathrow when he returned from the Thai cave rescue?

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Roz Lun with Chris Jewell (left) and John Volanthen after they gave the first talk on the Thai Cave Rescue in September 2018 

I was therefore very pleased (and quite surprised) that after a three-year wait for answers, to hear that this quiet, reserved individual has now chosen to give us exclusive access to the inside of his head. I asked John just what had compelled him to write ‘Thirteen Lives’.  He said: 'I felt for a long while, some of the ways I approach things are unconventional and potentially useful to others. A couple of workshops I ran emphasized this. Rather than attempting to inspire people, I wanted to offer tools to actually move forward or make a start. 

'The story of the rescue offered an opportunity to deliver these tools. If I can strike a chord with just one person, to help them through a difficult moment, out of a rut, or simply to look at the world differently, then it will have been a success.' 

John’s hardback book landed with a thud on my doormat. To my delight I found this to be beautifully written and very easy to read. You don’t have to work hard to devour the pages. While John’s personal life is still just that – personal - we do get to see his thinking, rational, process and mentality.

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John Volanthen (left) and Rick Stanton at Wookey Hole in 2021 (photo Duncan Price)
 

In this world of instant gratification and 'I’ve-just-completed-my-open-water-course-and-I-want-to-be-a-tech-diver-now' wannabees, it is good to see that John Volanthen has shown that in order to achieve what he has, it takes years of diving, exploration, hard knocks and what I term a ‘safe diving accident’. When you walk away from a dive safe, and undamaged having been through an incident three things have got you back safe and sound. Your quality dive training, your strong positive attitude, and your experience. The only way you can get experience is to do it. You cannot short cut time served in the water by diving the latest gizmo or jumping from course to course. Anyone can dive deep, it’s the coming back up again, safe and in one piece, that is the challenge. 

'When selecting a team such as the one we were building in Tham Luang, I have found it’s most important to choose people I have trusted in the past and then trust the people I have chosen'  – John Volanthen, Thirteen Lives

Throughout ‘Thirteen Lives’ John recalls various ‘safe diving accidents’, often employing the dark trench, ironic humour that all explorers, service personnel and rescuers have to use, to cope with desperate and extreme situations.

As I wrote this review I shared one of these incidents with ‘Bluebird Team Diver’ Sally Cartwright. She too knows John and Rick, and I understood she would ‘instantly get it’ too. I read out the passage from the book where John discusses that 'trust is the most important attribute when working as a team underwater'. He recalls how Rick swam up to him in Saint-Seuveur (a cave system in the Dordogne, France) and showed him a set of wetnotes with four words written on it:  'I NEED YOUR REBREATHER'.

Some cultures don’t realise that most Brits will tend to underplay things. If you hear a Brit say 'I’m in a spot of bother' or 'everything’s perfectly alright, I am just a little bit hurt', they are actually in real trouble or clearly damaged. They need help. Now! Why do I mention all this? John Volanthen is from the same school. His matter-of-factness in describing an extraordinary equipment swap deep inside the French cave is in the same vein. It’s a delicious piece of prose about the two protagonists, and very funny. The description of Rick Stanton’s stare is just perfect. There is no mistake. You know when you have been on the receiving end of this look. How two eyes can convey a thousand words in a blink is impressive.

While Sally and I laughed our heads off at the kit swap story, we got and knew the grim seriousness of the situation. Rick was moments from running out of gas, deep inside a cave, with a 12-hour decompression obligation in front of him. He was close to dying. No wonder he was giving John Volanthen ‘Paddington Bear hard stares’. What didn’t surprise me was that John had actually thought through the emotions of recovering Rick’s body from a watery tomb. John had decided he’d be comfortable with the work, if the need ever arose. When he mentioned this to Rick, he recalled Rick wasn’t particularly delighted at the news. The things you learn from this book, eh!

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 The four British rescue divers who dived out the children, and Dr Richard 'Harry' Harris the Australian cave diving anesthesiologist.  From left to right (top) Jason Mallinson, Rick Stanton; (bottom) Richard Harris, Chris Jewell, John Volanthen

I’m in a privileged position because I’ve heard, mostly over beer and much hilarity, parts of the dives that John and Rick have done over the years. And I was briefed on some of what went on during the Thai cave rescue, yet I couldn’t wait to get my sticky paws on John’s book and fill in chunks of knowledge I was missing. I learned a heck of a lot from this book. What I didn’t expect, and I love, is that the advice he gently imparts can be applied to everyday life obstacles and challenges.

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The rescue Wild Boars and coach at a press conference in 2018 (Photo Shutterstock 2play2/Shutterstock)

'Allow volatile situations to settle. Don’t stir the silt' – John Volanthen, Thirteen Lives

Thirteen Lessons that Saved Thirteen Lives’ is oh so typical John Volanthen. There is no heroism. (When the Brits returned from Thailand I watched them visibly cringe on live television when the press and presenters called them heroes). There is no 'Didn’t I do well?'. Definitely, no showboating. It is kind and humble. A book about how having the right attitude keeps you safe while diving and living your life. The best bit? There is no specialist knowledge of cave diving required to understand the many inspirational messages in this book. Certainly, if you know someone in your life who could benefit from its lessons, or who just wants to know what really happened in that cave, it is a 'pass it on' book.

I leave you with a John Volanthen thought.

'Be kind to yourself. You are doing OK!'  John Volanthen, Thirteen Lives

 

 

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