It happened to me
Marooned in a broken boat, in a storm, amid increasing panic, Mark Mayne feared his pleasant dive trip had transformed into Lord of the Flies
It had been a textbook day out diving in SE Asia, beautiful sunshine throughout the day and calm limpid waters. We were returning from our second dive several miles off Ko Lanta, late in the afternoon. The light 30-foot semi-covered speedboat was crowded. A tropical storm was incoming – a black smudge on the horizon. Immediately it was obvious that the crew were concerned – instead of heading directly back to Ko Lanta, still visible on the horizon, we began a circuitous route which allowed the craft to dodge the steadily building wind and swell.
As the storm approached, the headwind rose and forks of lightning illuminated the jet-black sky. The captain beginning to really earn his wage, juggling the throttle between full open up the towering ascent, then cutting it completely as we dropped down into the trough.
To begin with there was a party scene on board, with one trio of Israeli travellers riding on the bow, screaming in excitement.
The rest of the group huddled to the stern escaping the worst of the weather. The mood began to change as one of the bow-riders lost his grip, slid backwards out of control and lacerated his foot to the bone on a projecting bolt.
Now laid out on a towel, bleeding profusely, his features a mask of pain, hysteria began gradually to rise among the group. The Thai crew meanwhile were becoming visibly uneasy. Each trough was deeper than the last, and the wind screaming an ever-higher note. The pitch became so extreme that being thrown off the open rear deck and onto the prop seemed more and more likely.
It was the next charge up a water mountain that seemed to flood the engine, which spluttered and cut, caught again, spluttered. And cut.
Broadside on, the waves were easily big enough to swamp the boat, and the wicked corkscrewing motion made removing the engine cover tricky, especially surrounded by terrified passengers. It was now the size of the speedboat that proved its salvation, as it bobbed like a cork, rather than wallowing in the troughs.
The aft cabin floor was now awash with red-tinged water, spray mixed with the blood of the injured man, a small crew of helpers surrounding him. One ripped open the generous first aid kit, creating a scene akin to an explosion in an emergency ward as swabs, gauze and triangular bandages joined the flotsam and jetsam bobbing around. Among the scattered dive gear crouched the remaining passengers, one girl in in Victorian-style hysterics, several simply looking green, and most adopting fixed grins.
The crew rose to the occasion magnificently, crowding around the dead engine as if it was a stricken relative. Shouting frantically in Thai, they began to remove ignition components from the outboard, while the captain, also hollering apparently in dismay, began to distribute the aged life vests from their hiding places.
A rising tide of panic was palpable. There were nothing like enough life vests to go round, creating an unseemly scramble for the last few.
One brave soul, seizing the initiative, detached the emergency flare from a bulkhead, and began waving it around like a baton. The prospect of an unscheduled magnesium rocket launch near the open engine wasn’t tempting.
Just as it seemed that things were about to take a decisive turn for the worse, a hail from a fishing boat broke in on our collective misery. A grinning local slung a line, and within minutes of being under way the storm began to abate. A few hours later we limped home and the now cheery crew wanted to know if we were going to Ko Bida tomorrow. •