Sailing across the Mentawai Strait

Consciousness came to me slowly and painfully. My head was hurting; I was nauseous as hell; my mouth tasted like snake spit and my back was killing me.
Daylight was just starting to filter through the closed shutters as I squinted through swollen eyelids to see what was going on around me. I was in the stern of the ship. There were two slim blondes, one on either side of me, each wearing only a bikini. I looked at them and felt better straight away. Richard was sprawled on the floor a short distance away, covered by a sarong. The shallow movements of his chest as he breathed were the only indication that he was alive. There were wet towels, magazines and various pieces of clothing scattered about the cabin and the four of us were lying in a mixture of water, food and vomit. I was, as Gerhard later put it, curled up in full survival position when he came into the cabin. He rummaged through the chaos and eventually retrieved his binoculars from underneath me. This cured my backache, but I kept my eyes shut tightly until he went away. I was still too miserable to contemplate facing the world. We must have had a hell of a party: no drink had ever made me feel this terrible before. By comparison, my worst hangover seemed like a spot of mild indigestion.
Slowly the events of the previous evening started to filter through to my throbbing brain, aided by some clues from my surroundings. There were no empty beer bottles or wine glasses lying around and no streamers draped over the furniture. This had not been one helluva New Year’s Eve party; in fact, it was April and even though we were on board the most romantic looking ship in Padang, Richard and I had not been seducing the lovely ladies by candle light on the high seas. We had just experienced our first night on the Indian Ocean and it had not been fun at all. I turned over and retched.
I became gradually more disappointed as I recalled how I came to share a berth for a night with two sparsely dressed girls. Shortly after our departure from Padang, the Indian Ocean had welcomed us with a concentrated little storm. Out here they call these mini cyclones “Sumatran black eyes”. You see the dark fist of clouds coming at you from the horizon and before you know it, it hits you hard, very hard. Rain pours down like it can only do in the tropics and the wind howls, first from one direction and minutes later from the opposite. These pocket-sized storms have given many an unsuspecting ship a severe battering and must have sunk quite a few over the years. To escape the weather, Gerhard decided to head for open water, away from the squall and from dangerous reefs. Often the storm passes quickly and it is over as suddenly as it had started – the sky clears, the winds die and all is peaceful again. But not that time.
We left the protection of the islands and found ourselves in an angry ocean with daylight fading fast. The water’s surface had been churned into powerful waves, which were coming at the ship from various angles. Rain and sea spray soaked the ship and water started dripping into the cabins. In the galley crockery and cutlery slid around noisily in the cupboards. We were being lifted up and slammed down repeatedly by the waves. The ship rolled from side to side like a pig in mud and you had to really hang on to stay upright. We greenhorns weren’t handling this very well. Soon almost all the new arrivals on board were seasick; we became a useless, apathetic bunch. The wind howled and the sea crashed onto the deck. The straining ship creaked and the struggling engine roared, creating an unearthly noise – the sound of doom. Through the murk in front of the wheelhouse I could make out Francois’ outline, as he struggled around the deck, trying to save clothes and other items of value from being washed overboard. From where I was crouched down, I watched the bow of the ship gradually rise into the air as we struggled up an approaching wave and then suddenly dip towards the ocean floor again, as we lurched down into the trough between the swells. After every second or third wave another one would hit us side-on and everything that wasn’t tied down would be flung into the air. The process repeated itself relentlessly, as if we had been abandoned on a funfair ride in hell. With each sickening downward dip, my stomach tore upwards into my chest. Acidic fluid collected in my gills and the most unbearable nausea took hold of me. Each movement of the ship sapped my energy and made me feel even worse than before.
Everybody who’s been to sea knows the cliché about getting properly seasick for the first time: At first you feel so bad that you worry you might die; later on you worry that you might not. It’s true. The only thing for me to do was to seek shelter and eventually I struggled into the cabin, where some of the others were already huddled together. Up at the helm Gerhard and Gavin were somehow managing to prevent the ship from sinking, keeping the bow facing more or less into the wind. I hunkered down as the ship floundered into the night, my stomach heaving uncontrollably until I passed out.

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