The Hungry Reef

We were sailing through the Mentawais on the Island Explorer, an ironwood ketch on it’s maiden voyage through that magical Indonesian archipelago that hangs from the equator.
On board was a bunch of surfers in search of adventure, exhilaration and of course, waves. Hardly any of us had any experience of navigation, hoisting sails or of steering a ship, but we were young, full of energy and we were (over) confident. We had already made it through a storm or two, those concentrated little cyclones known amongst the old hands as Sumatran Black Eyes and we thought that we knew what we were doing. After two weeks on the Selat Mentawai we had fallen into an easy rhythm of surfing, snorkelling and island hopping, using the ship as our mobile home. We ate what we could catch or spear in the sea, complemented by what vegetables we could buy from the local people and sometimes some coconuts and bananas that we picked on some of the islets.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at one of the most beautiful bays a surfer could imagine: The Playgrounds. With half a dozen breaks to choose from and the most incredible white sandy beaches you can imagine, we were in heaven. It was April 2000 and there were no land camps or resorts around. And no other yachts and no local settlements that we were aware of. The charter season had yet to start and we had the whole place to ourselves. Everything seemed so ideal. This was easy.
After downing some lukewarm Bintangs that evening, I went to sleep serenely, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow there would be waves.
That night at Playgrounds we had another tropical downpour. From my bunk I listened to the rain pounding on the deck and I drifted in and out of sleep until at some stage I became aware of a different sound overhead. Together with the rain, there was the sound of running feet, then shouting. I got up to see what was happening and when I came on deck, it was chaos. Amidst the pouring rain and the wind, everyone was running around, pulling on ropes, hauling the anchor and in the wheelhouse Gavin was starting up the engine. The little motorboat that was used to ferry passengers and equipment to and from the ship, called the tender, was submerged alongside the Explorer. It had been moored next to the ship right where the run-off water from the deck went into the sea and so it had quickly been filled with rainwater and had sunk. At the same time the wind had swung around, blowing us in the direction of a shallow reef. By the time the guy on watch had realised what was going on, we were very close to the reef, approaching it fast. To make matters worse, the submerged tender was acting as a sea anchor, preventing us from manoeuvring effectively. At the helm, Gavin was trying to put some distance between the ship and the shallows, but to no avail. He kept dead quiet, his features rigid, his face drained of all colour, wet with rain and perspiration. The alarm on the depth sounder was beeping away, the decreasing depth flashing on the screen: 8m, 6m, 4m … I peered through the rain into the darkness in the direction that we were drifting, but there was nothing to see, the danger was lying under the water. In my mind I saw the jagged edges of the reef reaching out for the hull of our ship – the huge jaws of an eagerly waiting sea monster. The beeping of the depth sounder now turned into a continuous screech, like a heart monitor on a dying patient. At that moment Gavin revved the engine as high as it would go and with an almighty roar the Island Explorer surged away from the reef, pulling the tender out of the water like a water skier behind a ski-boat. You could probably have heard us cheering all the way to Padang as the ship steered for deeper water. Gerhard stepped back from the side wide-eyed. Everybody stood around dumbfounded; the whole episode had lasted only a few minutes. Slowly we sat down in the rain, talking in low voices, marvelling at our narrow escape. This had been close, far too close. Gavin didn’t stop the engine. He just kept going way out to sea, away from danger, away from any reefs!
The next morning we woke up to clear skies and calm, clear water in a different bay. The previous night’s happenings felt distant, like a bad dream, until we looked into Gerhard and Gavin’s faces and saw the dark rings under their eyes.

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