On the 4th day of our extended Easter break that had hitherto comprised hanging out by the pool in the mornings and walking by the beach in the evenings, we signed up for a mangrove boat tour. All that lolling around had begun to get on my nerves. I wanted a bit of action.
The boat ride was to start at 2.45 p.m., which came hot and blazing. We were on a small speedboat that looked cool in Bond movies but was actually very hot to sit in given the lack of shelter. I was impressed by the other family on the boat. The dad, mom and two well-behaved kids – girl (6) & boy (4) - from Kuwait, all sat quietly at the prow. It was even hotter in the front, without the tiny shade that the steering wheel and control panel gave us.
We spent the next hour seeing the most inane sights ‘Look a crocodile’. ‘Where where?’ I would ask eagerly and he would point at a rock shaped like one. The only real things we saw were Brahmini kites swooping into the water to grab chicken skins that the tourist boats had no business throwing to them in the first place.
When we finally stopped at a floating restaurant cum fishery farm, I was relieved. The next stop was at a bat cave, that looked rather creepy. For some reason a nugget of information I had read somewhere about bats causing rabies kept floating through my head.
The last stop looked the most promising. It was a secluded beach with only one other tourist boat. The kids had fun splashing in the water while the dads kept an eye on them. I walked by the shore, fascinated by the number and variety of shells and scored a few good ones. Nothing like free trip souvenirs.
By this point, the weather was nice and cool, my headache had disappeared and I was feeling pretty happy. We got back on the boat and I enjoyed the cool spray of water on my face.
After a while I realized that the cool spray of water was becoming a rather strongish spray. After five minutes, the Kuwaiti family gave a scream and scrambled to the back of the boat. I watched with disbelief as water began to flood the boat and carried away a couple of shoes belonging to the other family. The boatman was struggling at the wheels.
Within seconds, we all tightened our life jackets. I looked around for something to start bailing out the water with and spotted the plastic trays containing our packed sandwiches which we had not yet had. Emptying them and handing one to the Kuwaiti mom, I began to bail out the water. So did she while furiously chanting Islamic prayers. The dads were holding onto the kids and urging the boatman to do something.
The boatman was a rotund, young man with a lopsided grin and clearly not capable of handling any sort of crisis. He turned to us and announced ‘Relax. Relax’ in a manner than suggested he needed to hear the words himself.
Infact as a group we were behaving rather well. No one was crying or wailing. All of us were wearing our lifejackets. We were quietly waiting for instructions, albeit with furious bailing out of water. For one, we could not yet believe that there was actually a problem. For another, we were in a busy tourist route and it would be a matter of time before someone came to our help. We just needed to get the message across to that someone that we needed to be rescued.
The boatman then gave his next instruction ‘can you call?’
Er.. call who? Maybe this was again an instruction to himself. In any case, all of us realized that our phones had been soaked and were no longer working.
‘It is ok. I will call’ the boatman said. Presumably, it was time to activate the advanced wireless system the boat was fitted with.
We watched as he pulled out a dinky Nokia from the 2000s, gave an anguished cry, tossed his head back and cried ‘It is not working’
I could hear myself think - This was Plan A? Calling up people on his phone ? Was he shocked that it was wet?
The Kuwaiti mom had a similar look of disbelief on her face. ‘OK, what is the mechanism to empty the water in the boat?’
‘Do you have any emergency flares?’ I added
Obviously we knew all the questions but no one knew the answers.
The boat had stopped by now. The sea was pretty calm, so no further water seemed to be coming in. Still, the two of us kept draining out the water.
The Kuwaiti dad spotted another boat. He barked at the boatman to wave to the boat. The boatman looked a bit hesitant, like he was worried about losing his job if things got to a point where we had to be rescued. ‘Was there still a way to restart the boat?’, he seemed to be thinking. The Kuwaiti dad grabbed a beach towel and began to wave it furiously. The boatman reluctantly joined him and took the towel and waved it.
The other boat began to make its way to ours. Thankfully it was completely empty and we could all fit inside, along with whatever of our possessions we could grab on the way (I smugly noticed that in our case we had all our belongings packed into a single easy-to-grab bag. Ha)
The boatman was left behind with the boat though, much to my surprise. Presumably they knew that there was not much danger.
Infact, many hours later when the moms and kids had been dispatched to the hotels and the dads were still hanging around to discuss compensation, the boatman made an appearance smiling sheepishly. He had conscientiously gotten along whatever stuff had remained behind on the boat, including the single (and hence useless) shoes that had not floated into the sea. If only he had been this conscientious when he had attended his boatman training.
The tour operator refused to assign blame to the boatman and instead told us the engines had been hit hard by the waves and failed. Whether the boatman had caused the accident or not (which I rather suspected he did), he did not have an idea of how to manage after that. It turned out the boat did have ways to empty extra water and they had emergency flares on board.
Since it was a large outfit with a reputation to lose, the general manager flew down the next morning from KL and replaced our camera and paid us for the phones. So in the end, apart from a slight shock and some lost phone data, it turned out OK.
That night, several thoughts flashed through my head -
What in case we had capsized into the sea. Our lifejackets were in good condition but it would have been a lot tougher to rescue us if we had drifted apart, as we would have
How did the Kuwaiti mom's make up stay intact through the episode? When we had hugged and parted in the end, I noticed that she looked exactly as she had several hours earlier.
I had spent an entire five minutes bailing out water from the boat without pause and not felt the strain on my arms and backs. The Kuwaiti mom, probably my age, had given up after a while. Clearly, I was fitter than I thought.