IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Survived A Shipwreck

In the middle of the night, the boat sank off the shore of Komodo Island, most famous for its aggressive, man-eating Komodo Dragons.
Publish date:
January 23, 2014
travel, adventure, shipwreck

Ask me about the worst moment of my life and I'll tell you about when a crew member of my Indonesian boat burst onto our ship's deck in the middle of the night, his eyes wild with terror, and said, "Everybody, put your life jackets on."

Minutes later, that boat sank off the shore of Komodo Island, most famous for its aggressive, man-eating Komodo Dragons.

I was backpacking Southeast Asia solo and had booked a five-day cruise from the island of Lombok, east of Bali, to Komodo Island and back. The cruise was a budget adventure through the Nusa Tenggara region, tailored to backpackers rich in time and short on cash. The highlight of the trip? Komodo National Park and its eponymous dragons.

It was March 2011 and the tail end of rainy season in this part of Indonesia. After a few days of on-and-off drizzling leading to brilliant sunsets, it began heavily downpouring on the second afternoon, the sky dark and voluptuous, the water slate grey and spiky.

This stormy weather led to rough swells tossing the boat at sickeningly slow intervals. Gray with nausea, I took a motion sickness pill in the evening and promptly fell asleep on a bench.

I awoke to a dull thud followed by a scraping sound. The curtain on the window above me flew open and I was drenched with rain. I crawled down to the floor, where my shipmates were sleeping on mats, and then the lights were turned on.

“Everybody, put your life jackets on.”

At his command, the boat's engine began to roar, speeding the vessel to shore before it submerged completely. I jumped up and tried to find a life jacket. The jackets were packed underneath the benches where I slept, but they clearly hadn't been used in quite some time -- the ties were knotted together and it took several tries before I could pull one free.

As our boat sped to shore, the boat began tipping increasingly to the right. The crew began screaming. I was equal parts panicking and dead calm, sobbing and praying for the first time in years while rationally planning out my next moves. A shipmate held one arm around me and one around her boyfriend, her face white and immobile.

The boat stopped short. It became clear that we would need to evacuate as soon as possible. I grabbed my dry bag and my day pack, my computer and valuables inside the latter, and ran out onto the deck. Then a new bombshell hit.

"The lifeboats are not working right now."

Two lifeboats were on board: one wood and one inflatable. How they were unusable is something that I don't understand to this day.

The boat tipped even further to the right, its left side high in the air. Forget your belongings. Save your life, I told myself. I tossed my day pack back on the ship, keeping the dry bag on me.

"Jump now!" a crew member urged us.

I watched them jump. The Dutch couple in their fifties. The backpacking couple from Switzerland. And, most memorably, the young Danish parents and their 10-month-old baby girl. The father tied a scarf around her waist, tied the other end to his wrist, and jumped while holding her high above his head.

It was my turn. I didn't think. I leaped over the edge and landed in the water, momentarily marveling at its warm temperature. Held afloat by the puffy orange vest, I dog-paddled toward the shore until the waves threw me head-first into a set of sharp dark rocks. Our island wasn't a sandy beach like the one on which Tom Hanks washed up in "Cast Away"; this one was characteristic of Indonesia's volcanic landscape.

Safely on shore, our saga wasn't over -- the crew urged us to climb those rocks and keep climbing. Toward what –- or, frighteningly, away from what –- I had no idea. My unattractive sports sandals redeemed themselves with their rugged structure; my shipmates weren't so lucky, particularly the barefoot ones who ended up with badly cut feet.

And then a miracle. A nearby dive boat had heard our distress signal and sent their speedboat over to collect us. We scampered down the rocks, back into the warm water. I began laughing with joy, releasing the worry held inside me since the scraping noise, belly-flopping onto the speedboat's bow, chortling with glee. We were saved.

After warming up with a cup of tea and a few hours of fitful sleep in the dive boat's linen closet, my shipmates and I were transferred to Labuan Bajo, a dusty town on the island of Flores. Here the days are punctuated with overlapping calls to prayer from neighboring mosques while friendly fishermen constantly inquire about your well-being.

After finding out where we sank, those fishermen were aghast that our boat attempted to pass through that region at low tide in the middle of the night during a storm, a region that they deemed dangerous at low tide even in the best of conditions.

The cruise company attempted to placate our group. Everyone was fed, housed, and refunded the cost of the trip. We rejoiced when some of our belongings were salvaged from the wreck; our joy turned to rage when we learned they had been ransacked. Computers, phones, cameras, and even clothing were gone; the heavy items had been replaced with cans of beer and tubes of Ritz crackers.

The true gem of this story was the response from the company's manager. "You should have empathy for us," she told me. "We lost our boat!"

I think it's fair to say they didn't garner much sympathy.

I went to the tiny police station to report the shipwreck and the robbery and get written statements to send to my insurance company. The crew and the police met privately and soon announced that they would not give us statements unless we agreed to the company's version of the story, which absolved them from any and all wrongdoing.

Police corruption is omnipresent in Southeast Asia and the developing world; this latest turn was unfortunate but not surprising. If I wanted to get any money from my insurance company, I would need to go along with their story.

As kind and welcoming as the locals of Labuan Bajo had been to me, it was time to get out and move on. I booked a flight back to Bali and spent the next few weeks as a virtual shut-in, only emerging from my guesthouse to eat before returning to the darkness.

It's been nearly three years since the shipwreck. I'm proud to say that Lonely Planet, who previously described the company as one of the safer cruise options in the region, now mentions the shipwreck in its Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guidebook. I'm still in touch with my fellow shipwreckees, some of whom finally made it to Komodo Island months or years later. The little baby on board is doing wonderfully at home in Denmark.

I realize how incredibly lucky we were that night. We wrecked fairly close to shore, not out on the open seas. We landed on a part of the island uninhabited by Komodo dragons, and the rain would have kept them away anyway. We made it overboard before the boat tipped over. And I had been sleeping next to my dry bag with my camera, wallet, and phone, which I took overboard with me.

Nobody died. Nobody was seriously injured. Not every backpacker has been as fortunate as us.

That said, the shipwreck left scars that will affect me forever. Stepping onto a boat now sends me into panic.

On my overnight ferry to the Shetland Islands, far north of Scotland, I spent the entire journey hyperventilating, afraid we were going to tip over. Just a few hours before writing this piece, I took a longtail boat from Railay to Ao Nang, Thailand, and stared at the bottom of the boat in silent dread as water seeped in through the wooden cracks.

Today, though, my career as a professional travel blogger allows me to use the shipwreck for good, and I now inform all travelers to Indonesia of the dangers of traveling overnight to Komodo Island.

If you want to visit Komodo Island, don't take an overnight cruise from Lombok. Fly to Labuan Bajo or travel there overland during the day, then do a day trip to Komodo. You might spend a bit more money, but this way you won't be jumping off the boat in the middle of the night, wondering if a pack of dragons awaits you on shore.