Even before we took off for Raja Ampat last year, we had known it was going to be unforgettable, but we didn’t know that we would be going home empty-handed, quite literally, with only a handful of beautiful yet lamentable memories to last a lifetime. This is the story of how our boat sank in the waters of Raja Ampat, how it took with it our belongings and how we spent two days “stranded” in our own country. But more importantly, this is how we learned to find beauty in the little things and gratitude in loss.
When the sun came up on January 4th 2017, the soft light of dawn illuminated our stilt house, as if promising our little team a beautiful day. As that morning was supposed to be our last in Nut Tonton Homestay, we had woken up early to enjoy breakfast before having to return to the city of Sorong. By 7 am, our trunks and belongings had all been tightly packed inside the speedboat’s compartment. After bidding our last goodbyes to the lovely island and the locals, the twelve of us piled into the boat, reluctant to leave yet eager to continue our adventure to the North of Raja Ampat.
So it was laughter and mirth that accompanied us in the boat, but alas, it only lasted for twenty minutes. What happened next had been completely unforeseen, not even the captain saw it coming. If he did, he would have spotted the wooden plank that would soon crash one of the boat’s motor and eventually led to its literal downfall. The boat had been speeding, so when the wood hit the left propeller, the right motor continued to push forward and this imbalance tilted the boat to one side.
There was a loud thud when the split-second crash took place. A speedboat made its way across the sea by heaving and swaying, so I barely took notice when our boat tilted uncomfortably to the right. I was so sure it would return up straight, that even when I saw the water almost touching the window, my body scrambled to sit upright instead of escaping the boat. I remember vividly how I clung tightly to the metal railing in front of my seat, adrenaline coursing through my veins. It was not until panic erupted and water touched my calves did the reality and danger of the situation struck me -our boat was sinking, and I was still inside.
All of a sudden, the kids were crying, parents were shouting all our names and the water was now up to my chest. The next few seconds were a blur, I remember the windows closing in on the few of us still inside, the world becoming darker and colder, water rushing in faster than ever, the boat submerging itself deeper and deeper underwater. I can’t exactly remember how I got out, but I did. When everyone was within a safe distance from the sinking boat, we helped each other into life-jackets. Random things were floating around us, I caught half a pair of somebody’s fin and quickly slipped it into my right feet. When the actions receded, everyone was pale and speechless. It was as if we had all been jerked awake from a dream that was not quite right.
Fortunately, a fisherman had seen the crash, so we didn’t have to wait ten minutes before he arrived to help. The two youngest were allowed aboard his tiny fishing boat. The girl was crying, it was no doubt a horrifying experience for a ten-year old, and they drifted away towards Nut Tonton to call for more boats. I can’t imagine what would have happened had nobody seen us, or been kind enough to offer their hands. Perhaps some of us would have been lost to the sea, or defeated by cold and hunger; we knew all too well, by now, how unforgiving the waters could be. It’s very likely that I would not even be here to share our story.
Meanwhile, the ten of us left waited for the boat to return, saving what we could: a few handbags we found afloat, a carton of instant noodles which we would have for lunch, dinner and breakfast until the next day, and we held unto each other like letting go meant risking a goodbye. It was a bright and pleasant morning, but it was no time to gaze at the sky, so there we remained adrift.
Maybe it seems small compared to everything else that was going on, but I did lose my glasses in my panicked scramble out of the boat and trust me, it wasn’t fun at all to see in a blur for two whole days.
Long story short, the fisherman came back with more boats and a number of men. We piled into one of them and was steered back to the island. The ride was eerily quiet, but it could’ve passed as peaceful had we not just escaped a sinking boat. I remember sitting in the front corner of the small boat, my outfit soaking wet and my mind still conceiving the improbable accident that had just befell us.
Our electronics were dead, save for one mobile phone. Our bags were gone; with that our clothes, shoes, medicines, books and nearly everything else we had brought with us. We had to make do with our own selves, the clothes on our backs and nature itself. At one point I found myself some paper and a pen, and never before had I been so grateful for them. It was indeed a misfortune, but still I felt an urgent need to jot down even the smallest details. I was scared that the events of that morning would soon be a mere fleeting memory.
That day it seemed like we had all the time in the world. I slept the rest of the morning off, had lunch of leftover breakfast (from our meal only that morning), walked around the island and sat aimlessly on the shore while singing our hearts out. It nearly felt like enjoying our own private island. We had spent so many hours admiring the scenery and I deeply wished I could capture the moment. Of course, I remembered that there was no camera.
We retired to our rooms early that night, as we planned to catch the next early ferry from Yelu, a village island one hour away from ours. We stayed in the same stilt house and slept on the same beds, but our rooms were bare. There were no knickknacks, no suitcases, no outfits laid out for tomorrow’s journey. Perhaps it was my mind playing tricks, but the bed felt colder and the room was stuffier. For the first time in our trip, I felt so far away from home. The events of that morning suddenly washed over me like an overwhelming flood, I was sweating all over.
I laid awake for hours that night. The dead silence was broken by waves crashing underneath, and it sounded like the ocean was taunting me. All of a sudden, I was terrified. I didn’t want to go home. Escaping a sinking speedboat was one thing, but what would happen when a large ferry sank and you’re stuck in the lower level, amidst a panicked crowd? What would happen if our plane home crashed? Survival wouldn’t look so easy then.
At last I fell into a dreamless sleep. The sun rose again, as it did the morning before. We took a small boat to Yelu and from there caught the morning ferry to Sorong. It was a seven-hour journey and if I am to look back now, I’d say it served as a bittersweet ending to our adventure.
The Journey Back
We were a group of thirteen, gadget-less and luggage-free, dressed in outfits that had soaked and dried multiple times in the last day. The rest of our trip had to be called off. We should have been in deep despair after such tremendous loss. But we were laughing. Though our hearts were heavy with grief, we knew that there would be no other experience such as this. At least, I felt that the accident had brought us closer to each other in so many unaccountable ways that everyone else wouldn’t understand.
We arrived in Sorong at around 5 pm of January 5th 2017. We were bone tired from the journey back, but before anything else, we had to eat. I was famished. Then we hit a local department store to buy some clothes and other basic necessities, for me that meant a pair of contact lenses. I swear there was no better feeling than putting them on after two days of squinting eyes.
Finally, we were brought back to our hotel. It wasn’t five-star, but after everything we’d been through, it truly seemed like a luxury. I had never been so excited over a soft bed before, or a running shower with hot water, or the fact that we were back to civilization. The past two days had certainly felt like years, and I was so grateful for the comfort that I’d always taken for granted before.
The morning of our departure finally came. It was time to say goodbye, for real this time. Ultimately, it was indeed the trip of a lifetime, though not in a way that I had expected. We had experienced so many new things in the last eight days, from hiking for a spectacular view of Raja Ampat Islands to witnessing our boat sinking out of sight. Even as I type this now, it is all still too surreal to comprehend. We arrived in Sorong with twelve suitcases ready for our vacation, we left with two and the adventure (a little too far) beyond our dreams.
Thank you so much for reading! I know it’s lengthy, but this post is very personal and dear to me. I intended to finish it a month after we returned home, but it turned out to be extremely difficult to write. I was scared to put pen to paper, as I feared my words weren’t the right ones to describe our experience; I didn’t want to ruin the nostalgia.
Some aspects of this piece have been over-dramatized, but I’m truly grateful that we had all survived unharmed. I do not regret visiting Raja Ampat (but words of advise if you do, never take the speedboat to places you can reach with the ferry), though it would’ve been nice if our boat hadn’t crashed. Still, I feel like I owe it to the islands to return someday and explore what we had not.