Friday, February 22, 2008

Capsized on the Indian Ocean

I have just returned from a brief vacation in Sri Lanka that was supposed to be relaxing but, in one respect at least, turned out to be quite hair-raising: I nearly drowned! After a couple of days of swimming regularly in the Indian Ocean, I was offered the chance to go out on a fishing trip with a group of Sri Lankan fishermen. At first I hesitated, but then, as so often before, the thrill of a new experience asserted itself and I agreed. The boat itself was small but strong and had been fitted with a Suzuki motor at the back. The fishermen were a rowdy lot with a tendency to make excessive noise about not very much. It was necessary to steer the boat out from the beach before engaging the engine and, during this operation, one of the rougher looking men almost smacked me over the head with his heavy oar: not an auspicious start!

When we got out on to the ocean proper and began fishing, the day started to seem ideal. No land was in sight in any direction as the fishermen reeled out their strong nylon lines with colourful glass fish attached and lay back hoping for a catch. We slaked our thirst with water and coconut juice as the sun beat down on our unprotected skins. The fishermens' deep brown colour existed to give them more effective working time in the sun, but my own Nordic pinkness was defenseless against the harsh rays of the afternoon sun and, after a while, I began to burn: already I was aware that the afternoon's jaunt was not to pass by without exacting a price.

The fishermen were wildly fortunate and hooked a barracuda fish: these creatures are enormously strong and we needed to drag the resisting beast along in the wake of the boat for about 30 minutes before it finally weakened and could be reeled in. The man who had almost thumped me on the head with his oar (a truculent fellow if nature and phrenology provided any accurate indication) waited triumphantly with the hook and, when the barracuda emerged from the sea in a writhing mass of water, he plunged the hook expertly through it's body. Next he closed his hand around its gills, choking the life out of it, while another fisherman belted it on the head from behind with a strong stick. Soon the fish was dead and tossed into the bottom of the boat--from where several small fish were seen to float out of its dead body: the barracuda had been a pregnant mother.

Eventually we turned for home and, after about half an hour, we came into sight of land. Everything seemed under control and was going to plan. As we came into the final approach to the beach, the fisherman responsible for the engine cut it off: in the same way that we'd needed to guide the boat out from the shore with oars, so it would be necessary to guide it back in manually. Perhaps two minutes after the engine had been cut off, I saw a huge wave coming towards the front of the boat and the thought struck me: "This wave is going to sink us!" As the huge wave struck the front of the boat, the keel came up and was swept over rather like a toy boat in a child's bath. Everything went dark as we were all bundled into the ocean and I remember thinking that I should stay within the circumference of the boat as any attempt to escape might result in my being hit on the head by the edge of the overturning boat. Fortunately, I was able to avoid this latter fate and, equally fortuitously, never found myself caught up in nets or hit by knives, dead fish, or other items as they tumbled out of the boat. When I came to the surface, I was some distance from the overturned fishing boat and saw that the Sri Lankans were all clinging to it with desperation. The tide was strong and in the wrong direction, so I could make no headway when I tried to swim towards the distant beach (or even try to make it across the twenty or so meters which separated me from the boat). I was being hit continuously by waves and after a while a thought came into my head: "You are in great danger and could easily die here, just a short distance from the boat and not too far from the beach" (where people could be seen shouting and pointing). Strangely, I had not considered the danger until that moment. Previously, I had been trying to think calmly and give myself the best chance of survival--but suddenly I was alone without any chance of imminent rescue. I knew that if I exhausted myself with a futile attempt to swim to land, then I would drown for sure. I had only so much energy and strength and I couldn't afford to waste it on abortive and failed efforts to reach land. As I considered this, I let myself sink down in the ocean a little--and to my utter relief, I found that my feet touched bottom! At the point where we'd been capsized, the ocean was just over six feet deep and, with this knowledge, I was able to swim, walk and eventually crawl to land. Just as I dragged myself on to the sands, a couple of strong Sri Lankan hands grasped me and pulled me the last few feet to safety. The Sri Lankan fishermen were still out in the ocean clinging to their boat as I made my way up to the motel where I was staying.

So everything turned out OK--but it had been a very close call. None of us had been wearing life jackets and there were no rescue boats or rescue teams in that secluded area of the coast. I thanked God for my deliverance and, on the advice of an old Sri Lankan man, went to a nearby mountainous area where several poor Sri Lankan families lived. There we distributed free rice and sugar, soap, toothpaste and jam to five destitute families: I had been saved and the least I could do was to thank the demiurge by feeding some of his less fortunate children.


Anonymous Ely said...


8:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So glad you survived.

1:02 AM  

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