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Robertson was born in Edinburgh in 1924, the youngest of eight children. He joined the British Merchant Navy after attending Leith Nautical College. He left maritime life after the attack on the SS Sagaing at Trincomalee, during which his wife Jessie and his son Duncan were killed. Robertson remarried and began work as a dairy farmer.
On 27 January 1971, Robertson departed from Falmouth, England on board the Lucette, a 43-foot wooden schooner built in 1922 which the family had purchased in Malta with their life's savings. He was accompanied by his wife Lyn, daughter Anne, son Douglas, and twin sons Neil and Sandy. Over the next year and a half, they sailed across the Atlantic, stopping at various ports of call in the Caribbean. Anne retired from the voyage in the Bahamas.
During their transit of the Panama Canal, the family members took aboard an inexperienced crew member named Robin Williams, who accompanied them on the next segment of their voyage to the Galápagos Islands and beyond to the islands of the South Pacific.
On 15 June 1972, Lucette was holed by a pod of killer whales and sank approximately 200 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. The group of six people on board escaped to an inflatable life raft and a solid-hull dinghy with little in the way of tools or provisions.
Using the dinghy as a towboat powered by a jury-rigged sail, the group made its way towards the doldrums, hoping to find rain there so they could collect drinking water. They did so successfully, while catching turtles, dorado, and flying fish to eat. The inflatable raft became unusable after 16 days, so the six people crowded into the three-metre long dinghy with their supplies. They then continued to use the wind and current to their advantage, moving to the northeast towards Central America.
By their 38th day as castaways, they had stored dried meat and fresh water in such quantities that they intended to begin rowing that night to speed their progress. However, they were sighted and picked up that day by the Japanese fishing trawler Tokamaru II on her way to the Panama Canal. Robertson, who had been keeping a journal in case they were rescued, recounted the ordeal in the 1973 book Survive the Savage Sea, on which the 1991 film of the same name was based.
The story was revisited in his son Douglas' book The Last Voyage of the Lucette.
Dougal went on to write Sea Survival: A Manual, and continued to sail until his death from cancer in 1991.
- Steven Callahan, survived 76 days adrift in the Atlantic Ocean
- Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, survived 117 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean.
- Jesús Vidaña and two other Mexican fishermen who survived in the Pacific Ocean for approximately 9 months from October 2005 to August 2006.
- Rose Noelle, trimaran on which four people survived 119 days adrift in the South Pacific.
- Poon Lim, who survived for 133 days adrift in the Atlantic.
- Essex, a whaler holed by a whale out from the Galápagos Islands.
- Robertson, Dougal (1973), Survive the Savage Sea
- Robertson, Dougal (1975), Sea Survival: A Manual
- Robertson, Douglas (2005), The Last Voyage of the Lucette, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Seafarer Books, ISBN 1-57409-206-5
- Brinnin, John Malcolm; Probst, Robert E; Anderson, Robert; Legett, John; Irvin, Judith L (2000), from "Survive the Savage Sea", Elements of Literature, First Course, United States of America: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, p. 456, ISBN 0-03-052058-4
- What it’s like to survive a shipwreck. The Robertson family spent 38 days adrift with little fresh water or food supplies after their yacht was sunk by killer whales. Their tale of survival reveals the extremes the human body can endure.By William Park. 9th January 2020, bbc.