To The Rescue Near Sumatra

Shenandoah crew with rescued fishermen

The crew of Shenandoah with the fishermen they rescued – set centre of the front row

It was a true tropical morning at sea, sun blazing, humid and little breeze. I had just woken after running the red eye watch. It was around nine thirty in the morning and Ben gave me a call from deck in a typical aussi twang. “Russ, come take a look at this!”

I was up on deck in a shot and as a gazed over the starboard bow I saw what looked like a small vessel that had been de-masted adrift about two miles away. Ben passed me the binoculars and said “I think it might be a mayday situation”

 I was thinking that if it were a small yacht surely they would have tried to call on channel 16 over the radio and as I took the bino’s off bed and looked off into the distance the reality was a little clearer. I saw black and white waving flags from what looked like a small fishing vessel. At the time we were two hundred and forty miles East of the Northern tip of Sumatra and that made much more sense.

“…after all you have to be careful of pirates in these waters.”

I called the Captain; we started our other main engine, alerted all the crew and prepared to launch the tender. As we motored closer toward them we saw that they were two young guys that clearly looked in distress. Luckily the weather was being good to us and the swell was slight so launching the tender was not an issue. Dan, Romy and I jumped into the RIB and off we motored to take a closer look, after all you have to be careful of pirates in these waters. As we got closer we saw that these two guys were early twenties and judging by their continued flag waving even after we had clearly come to their assistance and their facial expressions; one of despair, the other of what seemed like hallucinogenic indifference, these two men were not a threat at all.

The boat itself was an 18ft common fishing boat, no protection from elements whatsoever. As we pulled alongside and took hold of the fishing boat the older of the two guys was screaming fairly traumatically. We took a quick look into the boat and judging the situation saw that they probably had gone out for a fish in their boat and run out of fuel. They looked hungry, dirty and in dire need of assistance. They both jumped straight across to our tender and the elder who was about 5ft 8in of medium build and typically rugged Indonesian facial characteristics grabbed my hand crying and moaning, I guess he was thanking me but I could not understand a word. I have never seen a face as grateful as that moment. He was pretty happy to see us and so emotional that it felt a little disturbing to be there.

“I have never seen a face as grateful as that moment.”

The other guy was very quiet. He was quite a bit smaller and skinner. About 5ft 4in and of more Indian smooth facial characteristics than the elder. He did not make eye contact and was a little dazed, I guess he was suffering from dehydration but it was difficult to ascertain as we clearly found out that neither of them could speak a word of English. So we proceeded with a little game of charades as we tied their boat to our stern and motored back to Shenandoah. On the way we managed to work out that they had been adrift from Sabang in Northern Sumatra, which was about 240 miles away and judging there state and character along with the West setting current we thought they had been lost between ten days and two weeks.

As we pulled alongside Shenandoah all the crew were waiting with concerned and curious faces. Both guys climbed the boarding ladder and quickly went for the shade and safety beside the cockpit. We gave them fresh water to drink and let them wash the salt off themselves with soap and water. At this point the elder guy called Iskandar was still very emotional, kissing people’s hands and letting out this shallow moan of desperation and happiness.

We then shipped our tender back aboard and set up a tow line for their fishing boat. As we were doing this we gave the guys some crew uniform so that they felt at home and laid out some beds for them in the deck cockpit. With a little more food and drink, life started to appear in both Iskandar and Mulhadi. We left them to rest as we altered course back to track. All in all the operation only took about 45 mins, and what amazed me was how, in one of the most busiest shipping lanes in the world, where we counted an average of sixty five ships on visual per day no vessel stopped for them in almost two weeks. Don’t you just love humanity!

Obviously the adventure became the talk of the day and the paperwork followed. We spoke with Search and Rescue for Indonesia, the MRCC (The Marine Rescue People) and then decides to alter course north of track to Sri Lanka. Cool I thought, another country on the list and a good deed done. At that time we were three days away so there was plenty of time to catch up with the guys and continue the charades and Pictionary to get some more information from them.

“…another country on the list and a good deed done.”

It turned out they were at sea for ten days. Iskandar was 23 had a wife and two children, aged 5 and 3. Mulhadi was only 18 and was single. They were cousins and went out fishing for the day, got lost and ran out of fuel. After a day they ran out of supplies but had fish to eat. After two days they stated drinking seawater but fortunately they were visited by a large container ship on day three. They did not pick them up but lowered some food and drink down to them, which they had a little left over when we met them on day ten. Amazing how large shipping regards these people as a nuisance to their schedule.

Three days latter we arrived in Sri Lanka to meet the Navy and officials.  They were going to take the guys to the Indonesian embassy and hopefully then send them home to see their families. Both Iskandar and Mulhadi were reluctant to go and very emotional again when they had to say goodbye. If only we could have understood what they had to say. Waving goodbye  was a touching experience, but it was the right thing to do.

We have their contact details so I will keep up to date with their progress. As for the boat we all decided that it would be too expensive for them to ship it back to Sabang and if we handed it over to the Sri Lankan Navy you know if some corrupt official will get their hands on it. So their fishing boat is on the starboard aft deck of the big Shen. Its 18ft long, has a 25hp two stoke engine and is only five months old (probably part of a Tsunami relief package). We’ve given it a good scrub and it looks great. The plan is now to take it to the Seychelles where things are very expensive, so we should get a good price for it. Then, somehow, we’ll send the money to the fishermens’ families in Sabang