I recently undertook a 3000km round trip across Europe for entirely unexciting reasons. Unless sorting out stuff in a loft you’ve not been in for four years counts as interesting. This trip allowed me two things. One, lots of time to listen to Abba, as my Mum was in charge of the music selection. Two, lots of time to think of adventures to relate. And it occurred to me that you might like this story, about a slightly unfortunate boat ride I once took…
I was rather lucky at one point in my life to be able to call a tiny island in the Seychelles my home. The island really was tiny – far too small for such conveniences as a runway. Or a port for that matter.
Were I the owner of the island, or a proper hotel guest, or anything other than a dishevelled student, my mode of transport to the island would have been the rather glamorous helicopter charter.
Sadly, I didn’t quite qualify for the helicopter option in the eyes of whoever was in charge of these things, so my usual way of getting to this island was a boat.
On the particular occasion of this story, I was accompanied by a friend from University, who wasn’t what I would term a strong swimmer. Not in the sort of water that goes up and down and doesn’t have a nice tiled floor anyway.
The tale starts off with us in a little boat, not much bigger than a bathtub really, puttering across the magnificent turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. Sea birds drifted lazily by. Fingertips trailed in the sea. Nina Simone was probably singing in the background. I’m sure you get the picture.
On the way over, the boat driver chatted to us about the fishing, and said it hadn’t been so good of late what with the giant hammerhead shark that had been seen off the island. (That was the end of the fingertip trailing). Not the sort of thing you really want to hear about when you’re bobbing across the ocean in what is essentially a bathtub with an outboard, but there we were. Nina Simone was quickly replaced by the Jaws theme tune at around this point.
As it was, we arrived at our destination entirely uneaten and landed safely on the shore. Palm trees fringed the pure white sands. Waves gently molested the beach. Hopefully I am setting the scene for you as this being a nice place to be, with solid, non shark-infested ground underfoot.
As soon as we arrived, the island manager popped down to the beach, and mentioned that there was a large buoy that needed placing on the other side of the island, and would we be interested in helping take it round in the boat and putting it in place?
Having just arrived on nice safe shark-free terra firma, the correct response would probably have been “no, thanks, we’ll be in the bar, let us know when you’re done”. As it was, it sounded like a fun and exciting adventure, so we loaded a gigantic buoy into the (did I mention it was bathtub sized?) boat, squeezed four of us around it, and set off to the far side of the island.
This other side of the island was a far less inviting place. Barnacle coated granite cliffs rose out of the water, and the sea pounded them mercilessly. There were no palm trees to be seen. Just deep, grey, angry water, hammering itself against the rocks. Not a place for a nice swim.
We reached the location where the buoy was to be put, where an anchor had already been put in place with a smaller buoy as a marker.
At this point it became apparent that not much planning had gone into the operation. Getting the enormous buoy into the boat on the land had not been an easy operation. Getting it out again on a squishy unstable surface was going to be even less so.
We peered at the problem facing us for a brief while, before someone had the brilliant idea to attach the buoy to the anchor whilst it was still in the boat. This seemed like an exciting option, so we did that.
What this resulted in was that our boat was now attached to the sea bed by some rather hefty bit of cabling, designed to moor rather larger oil bearing vessels. A sticky situation quickly arose.
The motion of the waves was attempting to move us away from the mooring (towards the cliffs), whilst the cable we were attached to was attempting to keep us (or at least the buoy) firmly anchored to the surface of the sea.
The result of this was that the boat attempted to make both parties happy, with the back of the boat which was where the buoy was going down to sea level so the buoy could float, and the nose going happily skywards, following the waves. Large quantities of water entered the boat over its stern.
In fact, we took on rather more water than was strictly necessary to enable floatation.
All this water inside the boat started getting quite excitable. As the waves rocked the boat, the water inside the boat started to slosh from side to side. Clearly, it wanted to be reunited with the rest of the sea, not cooped up in a wooden shell. Within seconds, the boat was rocking from side to side to a tremendous degree, and the boat man uttered the words:
“Get ready to go over the side.”
At this point, my friend looked at me in a sort of nervous terror and said
“What does he mean, go over the side?”
I was wondering a wise response to this, when the boat answered for me, and turned turtle.
As a brief aside, I should point out that I have a background in dinghy, or small boat, sailing. One of the drills that you practice when sailing a dinghy is known as a dry capsize. The idea is that when a boat capsizes, you are fast enough to realise this, and as it rolls over, you pull yourself up over the side and onto the bottom.
If you practice this properly, you can actually climb around the boat as it rolls over, and remain entirely dry. With a small sailing dinghy, you can then reverse the process, using the keel to righten the boat, and get back in it. It’s a neat party trick, and one I practiced a fair amount back in the day.
This similar process was possible with the boat we were in. As it went over, the two of us with a background in this sort of thing ended up sitting, still dry, on the upturned bottom of the boat, whilst the boat driver (also not a strong swimmer) and my friend, who had less experience with this sort of thing, got rather more thoroughly dunked.
It was at this point that our only real stroke of luck occurred. The boat had flipped entirely and trapped the buoy underneath it, which meant that it was still floating, and even better, still anchored. The buoy was very neatly jammed in the boat, so that wasn’t going anywhere. Even more excitingly, the boat had lifejackets on board (which, admittedly, none of us had been wearing). I fished some out of the sea and put them on everyone.
Then, the decision of course, what to do. There were no other boats on the island at this point, and even if there were, no-one was likely to notice we hadn’t returned for some time. There was no easy way to flip the boat back over, and even if we had been able to, the outboard motor was unlikely to burst into life after sitting upended in the sea for a while.
There was, really, only one choice. Someone was going to have to swim the couple of kilometres back around the island to get help. It wasn’t going to be the boat man or my friend, who were clearly much happier sitting on the keel of the boat than splooshing around. The island manager and I looked at each other, and figured that we’d have to go for it, sharks or not.
Leaving my friend and the boat driver sitting on the keel, carefully wrapped up in life jackets, we set off. The topic of conversation largely revolved around what sort of swimming action was least likely to attract a large shark. I believe the conclusion was splash free.
After a good period of swimming, which we achieved without being nibbled on by anything other than some seaweed, we made it to shore, and headed to summon help. The nearest boat which we could find that was available to help out was a few hours away, so that was summoned.
Help arranged, I decided that I would walk over to the other side to signal to the shipwreckees that help was on the way. I picked up a soft drink as I walked. On the other side of the island, I attempted to signal that help was coming, whilst supping from my beverage.
The response I got was less than enthusiastic. To this day, in fact, my friend believes that the only reason for my coming over was to point out that I had a chilled beverage and was on dry land, whilst he was bobbing up and down in shark infested waters, getting, as we discovered later, quite seriously sun burnt.
Still. All is well that ends well. Eventually help did turn up, and towed the survivors back to land. The next three days were spent sitting in the bar, me talking about the exciting adventure, my friend quietly dying of sunburn. No further boat trips were undertaken. Until it came time to leave….