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Life on an Ocean Wave

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Pattaya Yacht club, Gulf of Thailand, 1983

We had intended to head to an island on the Cambodian coastline towards Koh Kong.

‘So what do those black flags on the beach mean, man?’

“Oh those are small craft advisories, man. But don’t worry, they don’t apply to Catamarans. These are made for wind.” It was a sixteen footer, and  there were three of us on it. It was designed to be the clichéd three hour tour. I remember making a bunch of sandwiches to take to the island we had intended to go to. I had never been on a Cat before and didn’t know that there was zero storage on them, so I tied the baggies to the base of the mast and smiled in self-satisfaction.

I was told to jump on, which was more literal than I expected, as we whooshed offshore in the blink of an eye. It was dark and it was stormy. We were in significant swells and out of the sight of land within minutes. It was thrilling, and my captain was the most confident and enthusiastic guy I’d ever met.

The drama of the seas increased, as did the size of the swells. Soon we were in dips so deep that they eclipsed everything save for the vertical walls of water around us.

And then we turtled.

Turtling is what happens when your craft becomes inverted, when the mast that had been pointing towards the open sky, is now showing us the way to hell. One of the waves plummeted down onto the bow tip and pushed us up into the air, where we hovered suspended until coming down on the wrong side.

In a lake this would be an easy fix, using the weight and balance of the crew to cantilever the craft upright again. In a deep ocean swell with arrhythmic and unremitting crashes… not so much.

The trick was to go into the water and have the three of us ‘push’ the Cat around until we were in position to have another enormous wave crash down and re- invert us again.

This we did for six hours, our captain with indefatigable positivity. Each time we would hit this Sysyphus hill of a wave which would pitch us almost vertical. Several times we’d go all the way up on a sixteen foot wave, which had the three of us huddled at the tip of our sixteen foot craft. We were suspended thirty two feet in the air waiting to see which way we would bang down. We hung there for probably just seconds each time before it burst and we would slam down on the wrong side again.

The first hints of dusk were starting to show, and finally our Captain said; “ok we’ll try a couple of more times, and if no luck we’ll pull the sail up off the mast, wrap ourselves in it and wait till tomorrow.” The prospect of spending a night floating in the turbid embrace of a tropical storm filled me with dread.

Occasionally we’d catch sight of the ghostly mass of a distant cargo ship, and ridiculously we’d wave furiously at it, knowing of course that we’d be invisible to them even if they had been looking.

The sponsor of this ill-fated trip was a Canadian friend whose dad worked for the U.N. and who enjoyed all the perks of high level ex-pat life in S.E. Asia that his dad had been establishing since the 70’s. One of those perks was yacht club membership.

My friend had a friend; a half Canadian, half Thai kid who had grown up in Pattaya and knew the waters well. Our advice for this maiden voyage had consisted exclusively of; “just find something to grab hold of and have fun.”

Needless to say we caught the right wave a short time later and flipped back upright, but for how long? I had been in the water for hours. We all had. I was the one nerd though that had put on a vest as I’d almost drowned years earlier at a crowded tourist beach on the New Jersey shore of all places, so I was gun shy.

We all congratulated each other, and I only then confessed my fear of drowning out there. The Captain said; “really? I would have thought you would have been more nervous about the sharks. I was.”

We turned into the wind, and shot back to shore where a line of grim sailors stood with crossed arms and scowling faces. We were greeted by a furious Yacht club staff who had reported us lost, and who informed us that; ‘no, black flags did not exclude catamarans! And actually specifically included them.

The true miracle of this tale was the sandwiches, which had been submerged at the mast base all day in their little baggies. They were completely dry, and they were delicious.

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