Onboard a Sinking Ship

Ferries and other passenger ships in the developing world have a terrible habit of sinking. Far too often, reports of such ships show up in the international news. In fact, while we were on Zanzibar, a ferry from Dar Es Salaam sunk just outside the harbor, resulting in the death of many passengers. So every time Jeff and I boarded a boat, I paid close attention to the safety briefing (if there was one), scouted out my exits, and snagged a life jacket (if there were any). I was prepared for an incident that though not likely wasn’t improbable. Where I failed was in considering the possibility that a boat I myself was piloting could be the one that sank.

On our third day on Likoma Island–a place we wrote about earlier in regards to its warm, friendly people–the sun rises bright and clear, and after a big breakfast at Mango Drift, the backpacker lodge where we are staying, we push one of the lodge’s kayaks through the sand and into the warm, deep waters of Lake Malawi. Our destination is the island of Chizimulu, 13 kilometers away. According to the lodge managers, no other guests have made the trip during the few months they’ve been there, but they see no reason why we can’t.

The trip starts out as nearly all of our kayaking trips start. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. I don’t like taking orders, and when you’re the person in the front of the kayak, as I always am when I’m with Jeff, that’s what you have to do. I eventually get over it, and we find a rhythm and have a good time.

But about 20 minutes into this trip, I pull my oar into the boat and turn to Jeff. I’m feeling uncertain about continuing on. Though we still have about 2 hours of paddling left in front of us, I’m already feeling like we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s just us and a lot of water. It’s a little bit scary. And I’m starting to think that maybe we ought to have life jackets, a thought I share with Jeff. He reminds me that this is Africa, that life jackets aren’t standard equipment, that people who can’t even swim go out in boats every day without life jackets, but he also offers to turn around, either for good or to inquire about life jackets. I turn down his offer. I’m not a quitter. And if we go back, I’ll probably end up staying. Paddling 13 kilometers across Lake Malawi is freaking hard.

We forge on. The sun beats down, and we roll gently with the bobbing of the lake, which at 26,900 square kilometers might as well be the ocean. I paddle 100 strokes and then I break. There’s no hurry, and after about two hours of paddling, we land on the shores of Chizimulu. A coalition of cute kids greets us, and then they lead us to the island’s only tourist lodge, where we grab lunch, snorkel, and relax.

Around 2:30 p.m., we’re back in our boat. The African sun sets at 6 p.m.. It took us two hours to get across. To be safe, we’re giving ourselves an extra hour and a half to get back. More than enough time, we think.

But anyone who’s spent any time in nature knows that it’s not always predictable, not always willing to adhere to your time schedule. When we get outside of the sheltered area near the island, we find the water to be a bit choppier than it was on our way in. By the time we we get a few kilometers out, when we’re afloat in the no-man’s land between the islands, where going back or continuing forward will take approximately the same amount of time and effort., things get flat out rough. The wind picks up. Whitecaps surround us. It really is as if we’re in the ocean. In a kayak that’s meant for tranquil lake waters.

We know from rafting through the Grand Canyon in an inflatable kayak that you’re most likely to flip when a wave hits you on the side, so we turn the kayak ever so slightly so as to head directly into the waves while still aiming for our lodge, a landmark we can’t see yet but know thanks to the cell tower behind it.In order to keep the boat oriented properly, Jeff must paddle only on the left side, a balance to the wind. Soon, I too must join him. Paddling properly is futile. We’re not kayaking anymore, we’re fighting.

We can’t take a break. We just paddle, ignoring the burning muscles. We paddle and paddle and paddle. I scream with each stroke, angrily yelling at the wind and the water. Jeff, usually the optimist, starts talking about how we’re not getting anywhere, that we’ll never make it. I yell at him too. I’m the pessimist, not him. That’s my job, not his. And in this situation, I need positive. I am celebrating every meter, every missed wave.

Unfortunately, for each missed wave, there’s a wave that gets us. I’m soaking wet. There’s a few inches of lake water in the bottom of the boat. At one point, I try to bail, but it’s futile. I have no bucket; with a snorkeling mask, I can toss out a cup or so, but without me helping to hold the line, more water comes in than I can get out. There’s nothing to do but keep on paddling. The sun certainly isn’t holding still; it’s continuing its westward arc, and we’re now racing it.

Eventually, we find ourselves about 1 km from shore. We can make out the lodge, swear that we can even see a few people. It looks like we’re going to win this fight, this race.

Ha, nature responds. It’s not giving up so easily. Instead it ups its game. The wind comes harder. The waves break more frequently. With land in sight, we give up the battle to land straight up on the beach at our lodge, and aim just to get to land, period. I’ll drag the kayak back if I have to. We have to focus our energy.

The wind pushes us harder and faster than we’d imagined. In no time at all, we’ve been pushed nearly the entire 8 kilometer length of the island. Unfortunately, at the same time, we’re not a whole lot closer to land. Time after time, we’ve spotted a great landing area, pushed with all our might, and then watched as we were swept right past it. We’re going nowhere, and I don’t understand why.

But Jeff’s got it figured out. Over the wind he calls to me to turn around. Though there’s only a few inches of water around my feet, in the back of the boat, behind Jeff, the water has nearly filled the boat. We’re too heavy to go anywhere. We must bail. It’s the only way we have a chance. And so we both drop our paddles and furiously throw water overboard. The lake returns the favor by throwing it right back in. We’re in a losing battle.

And at that moment, for the first time, we both realize that we’ll never make it to shore in the boat. Jeff looks at me and says “What should we do?”. I, with a calmness that surprises me, say “Well, I guess we better swim.”

With that, we roll out of the boat and into the lake. I again wish we had life jackets. This is fresh water; we’re not buoyant. And the wind and waves mean the water is regularly going over our heads. Plus the sun, well it’s about to touch the lake. In a matter of minutes, it will be gone.

I grab the small daypack we took with us and try to hold it over my head. I lunge for one of my flip-flops, as the other along with a water bottle, floats away. I take a quick survey of the sun’s position. Not good.

I kick hard to stay above water. Jeff meanwhile dives under.

“What are you doing? I yell to him.

“I’m trying to right the kayak,” he yells. I think we both thought we’d slide out, flip the boat over, and then hold on to it and kick into shore, but the kayak has other ideas. It’s gone Titanic. The front points straight up, the back straight toward the bottom of the lake.

“Screw the boat,” I yell. “There’s too much water. You’ll never get it up.”

He agrees. But then goes underwater again.

“What are you doing?” I yell again.

“I lost my sunglasses,” he replies.

“Screw your sunglasses,” I answer, thinking that he’s lost his mind. It’s nearly dark now, and we’re still a few hundred meters from shore. We have to start swimming. And most importantly, we have to stay together. If we’re still in the water when it gets dark, we’ll never find each other if we’re separated. Staying together is number one on the importance list. Getting to shore is number two. Luckily, while evacuating the boat, I had the good sense to hold tight to the paddles, the only slightly buoyant items we have, and so I thrust the a kayak paddle toward Jeff. He grabs ahold of one end, I cling to the other, and together we start kicking.

Fortunately, we’re both good swimmers. But still we struggle. It’s not easy.

Fortunately, we also both keep our heads. Our boat is gone. We’re in an angry lake that is hundreds of meters deep right up until you reach shore. We’re on the cusp of darkness. But we know what we have to do: swim. We know that’s the only thing there is to do. We know it’s the one thing we can’t stop doing. We’re focused.

My life doesn’t flash before my eyes; I think only of how it would kill my mom if I drowned here in Lake Malawai. I’m not brave; I’m just determined. In fact, I say more than once to Jeff, “I’m scared,” but always calmly, detached, as a statement of fact not emotion. Jeff has left his pessimism behind with the boat and is only reassuring: “We’re almost there. We’ve made it one rock (referencing a peninsula we could still see further down). We’ve made it two rocks.”

And then, after what seems like the longest swim of my life, there’s solid ground under our feet. We pull ourselves up onto the big boulders lining the shore and take big gasping breaths. Our kayak is gone. And with it, the light. Darkness has come to Likoma Island. And though we’ve made it on to land, we’re nowhere near any signs of life. The nightmarish adventure isn’t over yet. We still have to make our way back to the lodge.

(To be Continued…)

8 Replies to “Onboard a Sinking Ship”

  1. I am glad you both are alive! However, I can’t finish reading this post. You are such an excellent writer that I feel as if I am drowning! I guess I will have to wait for the movie (and cover my eyes as I watch it!)

  2. I just had to comment on this one… I’ve been a reader for awhile. This post really reminds me of ocean kayaking adventures in Hawaii. My fiance and I also decided it would be a great idea to paddle out to an island about 2 hours away. Between crazy currents, exposed reef, and rogue waves we thought we would never make it. And, though our kayak didn’t actually sink (that’s just crazy!), we did get dumped by a wave and found ourselves bobbing about in the Pacific with an upside-down boat. We managed to right everything again and are very fortunate we had life jackets, but not without a major struggle! Flipping over a kayak and getting two people back in, in water WELL over your head, is not easy!!

    I’m glad you two made it to shore safely, and I really enjoy your blog. Looking forward to how this kayaking drama ends!

  3. Luckily I heard this story before it was posted. Also, Theresa knew if this story was posted while they were gone, I would have been worrying even more.

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