Springboard: John Volanthen, Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives

Springboard: John Volanthen, Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives

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In 2018, you were the first to reach the Thai cave boys, find them alive, and rescue them. What was that experience like?
The only word I can use is “unbelievable”. We had absolutely assumed we would find bodies. As I was climbing up the mud bank, I kept saying “believe”. I was telling myself, “This is real! They’re all alive!” I think they were pleased to see us, to say the least.

The book is the story of the rescue, with lessons for everyday life. Which of them apply to the pandemic?
There are lots of parallels. One is understanding what you can affect and what you just have to accept. That, in terms of lockdown, is very appropriate. One of my chapters is called “Take one breath at a time”. It talks about stress and managing tasks that almost seem impossible on top of each other. I explain how that occurred in Thailand and how to manage things by breaking them down. Taking one breath at a time is a good start.

What kind of mentality is needed for cave diving?
It’s not an adrenaline sport! I’m very risk-averse. Being calm under pressure is important. I always say, “You can panic if you want, but once you’ve finished panicking, you’re going to have to solve the problem anyway, so why not skip the panicking step?” l like logistical problems. Cave diving offers problem solving with consequence: especially when there are other people involved, people who you are responsible for and who are trusting you. It’s: “How do you get to the end of the cave? How do you progress on past whatever problem stopped the previous explorer?”

How do you live with the highs and lows involved in rescuing people and recovering those who haven’t made it?
I’ve developed a set of techniques. It’s complicated. When you’re in the moment and dealing with the problem, you do need to be unemotional. I put my emotions in a box in my mind and get on with the task. I do think it’s important to take time to slowly unpack them at a later date. If some of that stuff is left to simmer, it can be difficult.

Who is this book for?
I was bullied at school. I was never particularly confident. I’m not a military, muscled, superhero- type. This book is the story of how I achieved what I did in Thailand. It’s an insight into my mind. Maybe some of the techniques will be useful to you. The concept is, anybody can do this.

Thirteen Lessons that Saved Thirteen Lives (9780711266094) is published by Aurum on 1st June. The hardback costs £20.