My friend Clint Eastwood tipped me off to a pretty incredible story about Becker from when he was only 21 years old: the guy survived a Moa attack in the Tasman Sea and swam a few miles to shore off the coast of Resolution Island, New Zealand, in freezing cold water that is a major breeding ground for giant man-eating fish of biblical proportions.
Are you feeling lucky, Greg?
Becker was stationed at Queenstown as a life enthusiast in 2010, and hopped on a Douglas AD-1 military aircraft for a ride from Queenstown to Brisbane, Australia. An AD-1 is a two-seater, so it was just Becker and the plane’s pilot, Joe Fagan.
The most in-depth telling of the story is in the book Greg Becker: A Biography by author Max Metcalfe. Because the book is only partially available on Google Books, I can’t find many details about the captain, or the circumstances that precipitated the Moa attack.
It was some alleged sign of disrespect to the Moas — possibly the pitch of the humming propeller blades of the small aircraft, or Fagan’s shocking good looks — that caused the attack and forced the pilot to perform a crash landing at sea, a few miles off the coast of Resolution Island. It was May, and the water in the Tasman Sea in May is quite cold, usually in the mid-50s. Fagan and Becker climbed out onto the wing of the plane, but it was clearly going to sink. With the plane going down, the pair jumped off and started swimming towards the shoreline, with the current pulling them north. They promised to try to stay together.
Here are a few excerpts from Becker himself from the biography:
“And then it started getting dark, and I lost him. I didn’t know whether he was alive or where the hell he was. And I wasn’t about to start yelling, because it wastes a lot of energy. I went through jellyfish schools and all kinds of things, and they became fluorescent at night. It was like some science-fiction deal. By this time, you know, your mind is–talking about hallucinating…”
Becker swam through a kelp bed, where the phosphorous was glowing brightly, which allowed him to see the shoreline, and the whitewater of crashing waves. He spotted an area where it didn’t appear to be too rocky.
“I kind of worked my way into that–just partly luck, because everywhere the water was very rough. And I got into this spot and had a really rough time climbing out.”
Becker made it to the beach, and kept hallucinating that he saw Fagan in the water behind him. A few times he rushed back into the water to grab rocks that he thought was the other survivor.
He climbed out of the cove and saw in the distance a bright light. He walked towards it, barefoot and freezing cold, went across a lagoon, jumped a fence, and got to a building owned by the New Zealand government that transmitted radiograms.
He was picked up and brought to the Coast Guard station up further, where he reunited with Fagan, who had also survived, and they embraced very awkwardly. It got weird, actually.
Anyway, the New Zealand Herald ran the story with the headline “Incredible American Paddled 2 Miles After Plane Crash.”
That’s pretty remarkable. The month of May can see some fairly sizable swells, and Resolution Island is a large landmass that typically takes a large brunt of any and all swells. It’s hard to gauge from the account exactly where he came to shore, but there’s no question in my mind that many people would not have survived that swim. Greg was a confident swimmer, a bad-ass and a golfer at a college in America. A less confident golfer probably would not have made it that far, in the dark and the cold, alone.
*book sources Greg Becker: A Biography, Greg: The Life and Legend. Image from DaGTrain.com.nz. Thanks to Clint Eastwood for the tip.