Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives, a review by Joanna

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Thirteen Lessons That Saved Thirteen Lives

John Volanthen

Published June 16, 2021

Audible Audio

7h 22m


“How many of you?” “Thirteen?” “Brilliant!” In 2018 that flickering video clip of those ghostly faces, that the world had been holding its breath for, raised cheers across the globe. The voice? British cave diver John Volanthen, who along with his long-term dive partner Rick Stanton, was the first to locate the Wild Boars youth football team and their coach, missing for days in the Tham Luang caves, after unexpectedly early monsoon rains cut off their escape. This is Volanthen’s book about his experiences – part factual account of those terrifying days in Northern Thailand, part practical self-help advice about how to face up to challenges in everyday life, from someone who has learned invaluable lessons exploring some of the world’s most complex underwater caves, and been involved in many rescues.

We listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, over a couple of car journeys. Beginning with his description of actually finding the boys, then going back to the beginning of the story of their involvement after being called to Thailand on the recommendation of local British expat caver Vern Unsworth. The Thai Navy SEALs running the rescue operation were initially sceptical that two (his words) middle-aged blokes could be of use, but as the dangers of the rapidly rising floodwaters became apparent, they were allowed in – and the rest is history. The book discusses how at each stage, one key lesson made an important difference – from changing your mindset, “I can’t” to “Why not?”, to “time slicing” – 3 seconds, 3 minutes, 3 hours, and covering the sometimes contradictory dilemma of when to listen to your inner voice – and when to silence the inner critic.

I clearly remember avidly following the rescue during those tense days in July 2018 – we had visited Thailand earlier that year, and my work in travel medicine and previous open water diving experience meant the unfolding drama felt painfully real. (I had zero interest in cave diving before, and even less afterwards!) Mentions of the successful rescue still bring me to tears. I’d previously read The Boys in the Cave, and we recently watched The Rescue, the excellent National Geographic documentary about it. I also enjoyed the Hollywood version, Thirteen Lives, apparently inspired by this book. Each time I feel I learned something new, but this book necessarily limited the perspective to Volanthen’s own experience: I still felt that I wanted to know more – he is very diplomatic in his descriptions of some of the individuals involved and their sometimes self-serving behaviours.

Where the book slowed down for me was in the descriptions of previous cave diving anecdotes, which are probably of more interest to those with an interest in the sport. Some of the self help sections got a little repetitive, and his audiobook delivery came across as rather emotionless. I wanted more about his thoughts and feelings about the situations they encountered: at one point he mentions his son, but only in the context of later meeting the then Prime Minister, apart from this there was no mention of his family life and how the potential impact on them factored in to his decision-making in the life-threatening situations they were facing. He comes across as a private, thoughtful and self-deprecating individual uncomfortable being in the spotlight, so I appreciate that writing a book like this meant leaving some things out. His sense of humour is also so dry that I suspect only fellow Brits may pick up on some of his jokes!

Overall this was a fascinating insight into the most amazing human interest story most of us will ever encounter. Had I not known the outcome in advance, I would’ve found it an impossibly tense read, so I still can’t believe these brave men lived through it. Just hearing about the challenges they faced was stressful – those boys were so very lucky that the right people answered the call. Thanks to NetGalley and W.F. Howes for the audiobook review copy.

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