With every wave that crashed over the bow, our small boat took on more water. The panic on our young captain’s face shattered any hope that we would make it out of this tropical depression without a miracle, and my brain wouldn’t stop humming the theme from Gilligan’s Island. I wonder how the brain can have a sense of humor when it knows that this will surely be the end. I knew it in my bones, the woman sloshing around in the saltwater at our feet knew it, and the two sobbing girls clinging to their belongings next to us knew it. But my brain kept humming along.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship…
Sheena and I sat on the beach with our duffel bags and waited. We had been on Perhentian Island for three days of relaxation and white sand beaches, and it was time to get back to the mainland. By mid-afternoon we would be reunited with Nacho so that we could continue our northward trajectory up Malaysia’s East coast. Our instructions were to wait on the beach for a the eight person water taxi that would take us on a 45 minute jaunt back to the mainland.
When a small motorized canoe approached, Sheena and I climbed aboard, and were joined by a young couple from England. The canoe sputtered back to life, reversed, and then spun around to bring us toward the waiting water taxi.
The water taxi was wooden and rickety with a few plank bench seats and a makeshift awning to block the sun during the crossing to Kuala Besut. A small outboard motor hung from the back, and several rags, wires, tools, and a car battery littered the floor of the boat near the engine. The boat’s captain was a young Malaysian man in his early twenties, obnoxiously indifferent, and having a wisp of hair fashionably poking out from above his forehead like Billy Idol. He looked more like a DJ than a boat captain.
Once onboard, we put our bags on the floor and waited. We asked the driver a few questions, but found his command of our native tongue to be only slightly better than our command of his. Soon, another boat approached and two French girls came aboard, sitting down next to Sheena and me on the rearmost bench seat.
The captain fired up the engine and sped off toward Perhentian’s larger island, and as we approached a bay dotted with small hotels he killed the engine and we waited again. As we waited our boat slowly rotated in the water and I saw that the eastern sky was pitch black from the horizon to the heavens.
I got Sheena’s attention and motioned toward the approaching storm. “I sure hope we don’t get caught in the likes of that,” I said. The Englishman and his girlfriend overheard and looked up to see. The French girls were getting impatient.
“What are we waiting for!?” one of them scalded. The captain squinted and searched the beach with his eyes. “We wait,” he said. The girls hunched over and complained to one another in French.
The wall of black steadily approached, and then all at once our boat began to pitch and tilt as a blast of wind hit us from the East. The strength of the squall in front of the storm suggested that it was fast-moving and fierce. Within a minute big, heavy drops exploded into the ocean around us as though someone were pouring buckets of steel marbles from the clouds. With each drop, a small burst of sea water exploded into the air, which the wind carried across the surface of the water, giving the ocean the look of a blizzard blowing across a tundra. The awning on our boat did little to protect us from the sideways rain, and what water was collected on top of it drained into the boat.
“Let’s GO!” one of the French girls screamed.
Just then, out of the rain came another motorized canoe carrying a man and a woman in their twenties. When they reached us, they rolled their soaked backpacks aboard and stepped onto our boat. They were a German couple, and I immediately took a liking to them. The French girls gave off an air of superficiality and self righteousness, while the English backpackers seemed standoffish and disinterested. But the Germans wore smiles despite being soaked to the bone. They greeted everyone, took their seats, and smiled at each other.
By now the black clouds had enveloped us, and the rain and wind had intensified. We could no longer see either one of the islands, and the visibility had been reduced to a mere 20 meters.
“Okay, let’s GO!” the French girls shouted in unison. The boatman fired up the engine and sped off into the storm.
Sheena and I crouched down, hugged our legs and hid in the draft of the English couple to stay out of the wind and rain. As soon as we had moved beyond the protective shield of the islands, staying dry became impossible. The wind whipped the waves into sloshing six foot peaks, and the ocean peeled off in layers, drenching us. I pulled my sunglasses over my eyes to block the continuous barrage of salt water.
A terrible feeling began to come over me like a heavy, wet blanket. I lifted my head and looked around. In all directions there was nothing but whipping water and towering waves, which seemed to be hitting us from all sides. Our boat was nothing more than a wooden shell with a couple of benches, and the wind and waves tossed it about like a toy. Driving into this storm had been a bad decision. I turned around to look at our captain for the first time.
The young boatman was crouching behind the wheel, soaked from head to toe, his Billy Idol hair long since flattened into a dark smear across the tight creases in his forehead. His face was a portrait of pure fear. He squinted and jerked his gaze around in all directions, trying to see into the dense wall of water that surrounded us. I had to look away.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. The boat rode sideways up a tall vertical face, and I had to press both hands against the side of the boat to keep myself from falling over the edge. I looked back at the boy captain and saw that he was starting to panic. He frantically looked around, wiping the salt water from his eyes with his trembling hand. His mouth was slightly agape, and the corners of his mouth were turned down.
The Englishman noticed that our engine speed was becoming erratic, and he turned around. The boat began to pulse and weave as the captain continued to lose his bearings.
“What’s he doing?” the Englishman barked, “Doesn’t he know where we’re going?”
By now everyone had stopped trying to protect themselves from the wind and rain, and we all stared expectantly at the captain.
“Excuse me,” the German man said in a stern, loud voice, “do you know the direction to land?” The boatman stopped searching the narrow ring of visibility around our boat and his wide eyes stared at the German. The look on his face was one of alarm. He helplessly shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. He slowed the motor and began turning the boat in tight circles. He had panicked, and in doing so, we had become disoriented and could no longer remember in which direction we’d been traveling before.
At that moment, 30 minutes into what was supposed to be a 45 minute water taxi ride, we realized that we were hopelessly lost at sea.
The German man, recognizing that this probably wouldn’t end well, stood up and began grabbing life vests from the netting beneath the bimini top and passed them around. “Does everyone who wants one have one?” He had to yell to be heard over the wind, the crashing waves, and the sputtering motor.
After donning our life vests, I took another look around the boat. To our right, the two French girls had their heads down and eyes closed, sobbing into their duffel bags. A barrage of waves crashed over the sides of our boat, and somehow the German girl ended up on the ground at our feet, sloshing around in the saltwater, crying inconsolably. I put my hand on the girl’s shoulder and held her against my leg for stability, and Sheena tried to convince her that everything would be okay.
“How can everything be okay,” she sobbed, “the captain is looking around like he doesn’t know where we are.” The way that she sobbed the words describing our situation made it all the worse. “I’m so scared. The storm is so strong, but our boat is so small!” She remained at our feet, hiding from the reality outside of our boat.
Another wave crested our bow, and the captain realized that we were beginning to sink. He abandoned the controls, and I looked back to see the sea level only a few inches below the rear edge of the boat.
He jumped back and crammed his hands into the water under the rear bench seat near the car battery. He produced a piece of garden hose attached to a small pump, and positioned the hose so that it would evacuate the water out of the boat. He fumbled with the pump’s bare wires and pressed one of them onto the negative battery terminal. When he pressed the other wire onto the positive terminal, his body jolted violently. He had been electrocuted, and he whipped his hand back and forth as if it were on fire as he pulled himself back to the wheel. I watched the end of the hose, but the pump never came to life.
As time went on, our situation continued to get more serious. The storm was becoming more intense, and the captain was becoming more and more erratic. Sheena and I had been looking for buoys and trying to find ways to help the captain, but everyone else seemed to be waiting for a miracle. Finally, Sheena had had enough.
“Hey!” She yelled, “The captain is lost, so we need to try to figure out where we are. There were buoys out here on the way out, so help us look for them!” The Englishman and the German started looking around, while the French girls continued sobbing. The German girl had long since gone hysterical, and remained pinned to my leg.
From the peak of each wave the boat repeatedly slid sideways down a ten foot wall of water before riding up the next wave. Without warning, the German man flung himself forward, onto the floor of the boat.
“Balance! Boat! Balance boat!” the captain wailed. When the German had moved, the boat’s balance had been disrupted and we began listing heavily to one side. “Just wait!” The German yelled. A minute later he pulled himself back onto his seat and thrust his hand into the air. “Look what I find! I remember this! Is a compass!” he hollered. From the boat emerged a collective cheer, and he passed it to the captain.
The captain looked at the device, turning it over in his hand while trying to keep the boat upright. He held it close to his eye, but it was becoming clear that he had never used a compass before. As a water taxi driver, his navigation had been all visual. He handed it back to the German and told him to point him in the direction of 245 degrees.
As the minutes ticked by and the daylight continued to wane, we began to wonder whether the first hour of our trip had been spent driving toward or away from shore. We continued to scour the area around our boat for clues. Finally, at the two hour mark, we found one.
“Are those pillars?” Sheena yelled, excitedly. We all looked but could see nothing. “Look! Over there! I see some pillars in the water!”
The captain steered left, and soon we saw a fisherman’s net draped between several steel poles. We weren’t out of the woods, but at least we were somewhere near civilization! Our spirits started to lift, and after a few more minutes of motoring, it came.
“LAND! I see land!” It was the Englishman, and he could hardly contain himself. He bounced around and spun in his seat. “Woooooo! Do you see it!?”
From the fog a faint outline of limestone hills began to emerge. We had done it! Even if we capsized now, I reasoned, we could probably swim to shore. We continued motoring, and as the shore came into view about a quarter of a mile away, there was no sign of our port in either direction. The captain steered northward, but soon we crossed into a shipping lane. It was the shipping lane entering Kota Baru; we had drifted over twenty miles off course, and were nearly in Thailand.
Realizing where we were, the captain began to panic again. He was overdue in Kuala Besut, and had a lot of distance to cover before nightfall. He flipped the boat around and began a high speed blast southward along the coast, parallel to the tall, rough waves. Our boat repeatedly became airborne, crashing down in the trough of each wave. Now that our captain had regained his confidence and was trying to save face, we seemed to be in even greater danger than before.
“Excuse me!” the German yelled, “I think I speak for everyone when I say that we want you to drive to shore right now. We will find a road and we will hitchhike! Please, take us to the shore!” But his pleas fell on deaf ears. Dropping a load of soaked and frightened passengers off on a remote beach so that they could hitchhike to the port was a surefire way to get himself fired, so he stayed the course. We blasted South, taking warm blasts of tropical sea water to the face with each crashing wave.
Finally, just as evening had settled in on Malaysia’s east coast, we gained sight of the sea wall at Kuala Besut. The German girl, still sobbing, fell into her boyfriend’s arms and began apologizing. She turned to us and explained, still sobbing. “Coming here was my birthday gift to him. I’m so sorry.” The two of them hugged a while longer, and then he held his compass over his head like a gold medal. “Best five Euro I ever spent!” he cheered.
When we finally, at long last, passed through the opening in the port’s wave break, the boat stopped rocking. The captain slowed the engine, the German girl reclaimed her seat, and the French girls stared blankly ahead. Everything would work out, but somewhere deep inside of my sick brain, I wished I could have seen where this whole Gilligan’s Island thing would have gone.