“I shot the tourist… but I swear it was in self defense,” sang one of the crew members to the tune of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” in a thick Indonesian Accent. We were on Moyo Island, a small tropical island off the Northern Coast of Sumbawa. It was our first stop since the ship started moving the previous day. We were going to hike into the jungle in search of a medium sized waterfall.
I had woken up on the floor outside the ship’s bathroom crusted in my own vomit from the rough waters we had experienced the night before, so I was in no mood for hiking. But amongst my fellow passengers were a Spanish ship captain and his wife, who also worked on the ocean. They told me that the best way to bounce back from something like this was to take a swim. Our translator, a baby-faced Indonesian boy we knew only as ‘Ching’ gave me a generous ration of seasickness medication. And it would be nice to sit on dry land for a bit.
Okay, fine. I summoned up some will power, dove into the light blue water and swam over the small coral reefs to the shore.
“The ground is moving” I whined as I tromped through the Indonesian jungle, shirtless. The ground swayed back and forth on either side of me and I stared down at the ground, trying to concentrate on the path in front of me.
Walking straight to follow a winding river meant wading through that river 3 different times in a single direction. It was annoying in bare feet but eventually we reached the waterfall. It was, objectively, very cool. Water pooled in rocky bowls that had formed to be perfectly round and smooth, to scale for a human to use them as bathtubs. It looked like something that belonged in a cave. Some members of our group climbed a steep series of slippery rocks to reach the top of the waterfall, and that probably would have been cool too, but I was otherwise occupied.
I was occupied sitting on a log, staring at the ground and waiting for the ground to stop swaying. I still felt like I was on a boat. I think it was worse on land than it was out at sea. I needed a distraction so I was glad when we finally turned to walk back to the beach. I swam back to the boat where at least my swaying sensation felt much more natural.
Dusk On The Flores Sea
I asked Ching if he expected this coming night to be as rough as the last.
“I think… I hope not” he answered, without a smile.
We sat on the deck of the boat eating our dinner together. Nobody was speaking. We were not in good spirits. Lightning flashed silently off in the distance in all directions with increasing frequency. The coast of Sumbawa sat calmly a few hundred meters away. I watched the lights twinkle from shore, wishing I was there instead of on this boat. With the wind picking up, we could all feel the storm coming.
Since climbing aboard this death trap of a boat, I had learned a few things. I think these will be a good to prologue to what happens next.
- We were doing this trip in the off-season for travel to Komodo by boat. It was monsoon season and the seas were known to be very rough during these months.
- This boating company was the only one running boat trips to Komodo this early in the year. Every other company was refusing to sail this route yet because it was too dangerous.
- Not long ago another company had had their boat capsize and sink in the middle of the treacherous stretch of water between Sumbawa and Flores. Crossing this stretch of water was notoriously dangerous, especially during this season. The passengers of that boat were not all accounted for, but the ones that had survived had done so by clinging to a lone lifeboat for almost 48 continuous hours until they were found. We would be making that voyage tonight.
- The Indonesian island chain is a set of "barrier islands." What this means is that there are vast expanses of open water both to the north and south. Out in the open ocean, the currents are strong, and when they hit strings of islands like these, they get a lot stronger as they rush in between them. That means that, even on a good day, this stretch of water was going to be very dangerous. If we capsized, we'd likely be swept out to open water.
Storm #1: North Sumbawa Coast
I had come to the lower deck of the boat to sleep that night in hopes that the combination of my new sleeping spot and the quadruple dose of seasickness medication I had ingested over the course of the day would make tonight different from the last.
I lay on the deck that night white knuckling my sleeping pad as the boat bounced and skipped off waves. My eyes darted around the boat as it creaked and moaned its way through the elements outside.
This had been going on for a few hours (suffice to say there was no sleeping going on with me) when the rocking of the boat suddenly became more severe. The creaking grew louder. The bags left on deck began to move hectically as the boat rocked back and forth. Then, without warning, the boat took a particularly stomach-dropping lean towards the right. A woman screamed as the boat tipped farther and farther to the side. Then, out of nowhere, a wave ended our sideways slide as it crashed mightily against the side of the boat. The deck I was laying on flooded with water. My feet were wet.
Abandoning my anti-seasickness strategy of just laying there and looking at the ceiling I sat straight up. Outside the window I could see black waves higher than the boat. If anybody on the boat was still asleep, they weren’t anymore. I heard scared voices and saw flashlights turning on up on the upper deck. They later told me that their windows were parallel with the ocean when they looked out.
The Spanish boat captain struggled down from the upper deck as the violent movements of the boat did their best to throw him from the ladder. He went straight to speak to the captain of our boat but before he got there I could see Ching’s small figure blocking him.
I was sleeping between the 2 old men on the trip. The first was a tall, old, kind, Swedish man with bright blue eyes, wind-tossed white hair, and a mustache with whiskers to match. His name was Ulf.
“YOU SCARED, UFL?” I yelled over the roar of the ocean.
“ME?” He gave a hearty laugh – lightning flash illuminating his missing teeth. “NO – I USED TO TAKE THE BOAT FROM SWEDEN TO NORWAY THROUGH WORSE THAN THIS” He yelled back in thick Swedish Accent.
On my other side was an old Czech man. I don’t think anybody knew his name or liked him very much. He was gruff and inconsiderate. He was also woken up by this wave. He clumsily rose to his feet and somehow managed to light a cigarette in spite of the gusting winds. Then he lumbered over to the railing of the boat, grabbed the rail with one hand and took a few deep puffs. He grunted as he blew the smoke out, with his beer gut thrust boldly outward towards the raging sea. With the rocking of the boat, there were times when his belly and the waves were no more than a few inches away from each other. This brutish man was, however, unfazed.
The Spanish captain was now trying to comfort a crying woman. I asked what the conversation had been between him and Ching. He said that he had told him that the people on the boat were very scared and that we all wanted to stop and wait out the storm. Ching said that he would ask the captain to the stop. The captain had supposedly promised to stop as soon as we reached the other side of a bay we were apparently in the process of crossing. This checkpoint was at least an hour away though.
I sat back, feeling slightly reassured, even as the more and more water splashed onto the deck. There were lights that were visible on the shore. I passed the time studying the lights on shore whenever our boat leaned the right direction. I picked a light to swim to if the boat did indeed capsize. As our small boat was battered by waves, I kept my eye on the light that I had selected, reminding myself that I had been a Division 1 swimmer in college.
Eventually however, the swaying of the boat became less severe. The moaning and creaking of our vessel grew quieter. The roar of the wind and the waves outside became less frightening. And I succumbed to the advances of sleep. I hadn’t slept almost at all the previous night so my eye lids were feeling heavier than ever. Slowly, the tension in my body eased and I dozed off.
Storm #2: Crossing From Sumbawa to Flores
I woke up in mid air, about a second before my head was slammed into the hard, salty deck. Ugh. I shakily lifted myself off of my landing space, which was a fair distance from where I had fallen asleep. I sat my aching body up to see what was happening. Clearly the captain had not made good on his promise to stop the boat.
Looking out the side of the boat I saw ocean, then sky, then ocean, then sky again. There were no lights from shore this time. There were only broiling, black waves, taller than the boat. Lightning flashed around the boat so violently that it felt like a strobe light at times. The boat seemed to be traveling at a break-neck pace. It didn’t seem possible before, but the waves were hitting the boat even more violently. Water crashed over the deck. There was sea foam at my feet. It felt like sitting in a toy boat, the way the wind was tossing us around.
I could hear people whispering, whimpering and crying. Then there was a flashlight from above. My knight in shining armor – the Spanish captain came back down to talk to Ching. This time his report of the conversation was far less comforting. He had told Ching again that the people on the boat were scared. His response had apparently been something like ‘Yeah, I’m scared too!’
What? Don’t tell me that!
The lack of shoreline made it clear that we were making the notorious jump from Sumbawa to Flores. Remember? The place where that boat had sank recently? I would not be able to swim this one. This was open ocean. So what could I do but hang on? My whole body tense, lightning flashing constantly all around me ominously, I held on for dear life.
As time passed, things seemed to be getting worse. It seemed unlikely that our creaky boat would last much longer. In the upper deck I could hear people crying louder now. People were beginning to grab life jackets and put them on. Myself, I felt like something that bulky would just slow me down if I ended up having to pull myself out of this boat as it sank. And I was sure that it was going to sink at this point. The boat was violently tilting in a way that it couldn't have been more than a few degrees away from capsizing. In spite of all my anti-seasickness medicine, I was beginning to get sick but I fought to keep myself together. The only thing that could have been worse than what was happening right then would have been getting sick during it. Last night had been scary, but this was terrifying. The lightning continued to illuminate the tempest raging outside the thin metal walls that encapsulated us. Water continued to spill over the sides of the boat; the deck was awash with sea water. This was like something out of a movie.
Seconds felt like minutes. Minutes felt like hours. And I held fast to whatever I could grab from my spot on the floor. I needed to in order to even stay in one place. It was a seemingly unending stretch of time, and an existential one at that. I was alternating between thinking about the 'big' questions and planning my course of action to cheat death. But eventually, I saw light outside.
And then the boat slowed down.
Until, finally, it stopped. And everything was calm.
I shakily got to my feet to look over the railing.
I was in paradise.