Expert cave diver John Volanthen reveals how he pushed the limits of human endurance to rescue a Thai youth soccer team trapped in a flooded cave
[Click on image below to view full-size page]
John Volanthen had prepared himself for the very worst. The Tham Luang caves, which 12 Thai schoolboys and their football coach had entered for an excursion to celebrate one of their birthdays, had become an underground river – complete with rapids – thanks to an unexpected storm. And Volanthen was about to embark on a rescue mission.
“I visualised swimming into a tunnel choked with what looked like discarded plastic bags, ragged clothing and shoes, only to realise it was an underwater morgue,” recalls Volanthen.
The terrifying predicament of the Wild Boars team became a news story that gripped the world in June 2018. Volanthen and his diving partner, Rick Stanton – who together held the record for diving the greatest depth in a British cave, 76m – offered their services.
The subsequent fortnight was a whirlwind. The two divers were welcomed at Chiang Rai airport with a banner that read: “The World’s Best Cave Divers.” However, they were snubbed by the Thai authorities, who thought so little of their expertise that they were given one double bed to share, top and tail, in between gruelling recces of the flooded caves.
Billionaire Elon Musk was on the phone to the authorities with his own hare-brained ideas while the team was being inundated with suggestions from the public. The most farcical involved feeding the children through a mile of plastic tubing that would have inevitably collapsed, “trapping everybody in much the same way a skin binds the sausage meat in a pork banger”, as Volanthen put it. Hence the name the rescuers came up for it: “The Great Sausage Plan.” Thankfully Volanthen had a better idea.
“Hands down, the most surreal moment was finding all 13 of the Wild Boars alive,” he tells i on a video call from his home outside Bristol. The assembled Thai Navy Seals, US military personnel and Australian police divers had virtually given up hope of retrieving the group from the ninth chamber of the underwater maze before the two British volunteers made the breakthrough. After ten days, they found themselves counting the 13 awestruck faces by the light of their torches.
“There’s a moment where I’m saying ‘believe!’ and I’m telling myself as much as anyone else, because I simply can’t believe it.”
The 49-year-old has woven the miraculous story around his own rules for living in a new book, Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives. These include starting with “why not?” (how to ignore the inner critic) and listening to the “quiet voice” (knowing when to stop).
Finding the boys, aged 11 to 17, was the easy part, compared with getting them out alive. They had to be sedated with an injection of ketamine so they would not panic mid-rescue. The divers then had the hideous job of holding the head of each unconscious child underwater to look for the bubbles that meant they were still breathing.
Volanthen, the bespectacled IT consultant and Cub leader who fell in love with cave diving as a 14-year-old Scout, is not exactly the typical hero from central casting – as he says, he’s “more Clark Kent than Superman”.
When he returned to Heathrow after playing a lead role in the rescue, he was wearing his only remaining clean clothing, an old Shaun the Sheep T-shirt. When he made a statement to the waiting press pack, he did not even allow himself a smile – as if presenting some company accounts, he stated in a monotone: “The results speak for themselves.” He was back at his desk, running his IT company, later the same day.
Volanthen, who can fall asleep underwater and is “always on standby for the next rescue”, has since shunned the limelight. He takes issue with my wording when I ask what “ordinary people” can learn from his book: “I don’t think in any way that I’m not ordinary, in the same way that I don’t think you’re not special.”
He turned down publishers who wanted an autobiography (“that, again, to me is a little bit egotistical”) and, almost three years on, this is one of his first interviews.
Indeed, his mother and old Scout leader have appeared on the This Morning sofa more than he has. He was reunited with the boys at the Pride of Britain awards, but warned producers that if they ambushed him with a “photo-op reunion”, “I would very much walk off it.” He has not stayed in touch with any of the Wild Boars: “The last thing I would want is for them or their parents to feel beholden to anyone.”
Volanthen has cooperated with an upcoming film of the rescue, Thirteen Lives, in which he will be played by Colin Farrell with Viggo Mortensen as Stanton. But he declined an invitation to visit the shoot in Australia in favour of home-schooling his 14-year-old son, Matthew, through the pandemic.
Farrell has had to make do with Zooms to absorb Volanthen’s speaking style, mannerisms and wardrobe. “He’s been made to wear Crocs and I don’t think he was very impressed.”
But a scattering of Hollywood stardust does not even come close to the real highlight of the experience, Volanthen says.
“Across the entire rescue, the thing that I took most joy in was being able to meet the parents and not have to say: ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ I appreciate that is quite a negative thing, but I don’t think anything will eclipse that.”
- ‘Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives’ by John Volanthen (£20, Aurum) is released on 1 June