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I survived a shipwreck.
Saying that feels unreal – like it happened in a dream, or a really bad Lifetime movie. Seriously, did this actually happen to me?!
But it did happen, and I survived. This is my story.
I was invited to join Perama Tours’ Hunting Komodo by Camera tour as a guest. Perama is a well-known tour and transportation operator in Indonesia. In exchange for a complimentary trip, I was to write about my experience on AdventurousKate.com.
The five-day Hunting Komodo by Camera trip departs from Lombok. The tour then visits several islands off Lombok and the north coast of Sumbawa before landing on Komodo Island for a dragon-spotting hike.
After docking on the island of Flores for the night, the tour visits Rinca to see more dragons, then sails back via Sumbawa and Lombok.
The first day of the cruise was pleasant, if slightly drizzly. Rainy season in Nusa Tenggara, this region of Indonesia, lasts roughly from November to March. The sky cleared up just in time for a breathtaking sunset over Lombok.
The next day, we spent the morning swimming and snorkeling on Satonda Island off Sumbawa, then returned to the boat for lunch.
By the time we arrived at Sumbawa’s Kilo Beach, our afternoon stop, rain had begun to pour down.
“Do you want to stay here, or do you want to keep going?” our cruise director, Nardin, asked us.
I shrugged. I didn’t care either way, nor did most of my shipmates. Was there a point to staying at a beach when it was pouring?
We left the beach and sailed on.
At the time, I remember thinking that Nardin’s question was strange. Did he really just ask us what time to leave? Weren’t the trips timed so they’d sail the right areas at the right times?
The seas were quite rough that evening. I get seasick from time to time, and I usually just watch the ocean to feel better. But with two-meter swells and rain coming down, the windows and doors were closed, turning the covered deck into a box of torture.
During dinner, one of the girls gave me a motion sickness pill. I took it, curled up, and fell asleep right on the bench.
I opened my eyes briefly as everyone was getting ready for bed at around 10:30, then fell asleep again.
At 2:17 AM, I heard a deafening groan and felt the boat slam forward. The curtains flew open and I was drenched in rain. I scrambled from the bench down to the floor, crawling between my shipmates.
And then the lights turned on and the crew ran in.
“Everybody, put your lifejackets on.”
No statement has ever frightened me so much in my life.
I jumped to the benches and tried to grab a life jacket. The mesh divider was holding them in. For several minutes, I pried and pried, my heart beating wildly in my chest, but it was no use. I began undoing each knot and managed to pull a life jacket, little by little, out of a narrow hole in the mesh.
The jackets were knotted together. I discarded the first unusable jacket and grabbed another. It didn’t zip, but its straps weren’t tied together. It would do.
Lifejacket on, I surveyed my belongings. In the drybag next to me, I had my iPhone, camera, and the mini-purse I was using as a wallet. I ran to the luggage storage room, grabbed my little green backpack, and ran back to the deck.
Inside my green backpack were the rest of my valuables: my computer and my big purse, which was filled with credit cards and my passport.
I unlocked my bag from its Pacsafe and held it in my lap, sitting on the bench. By this point, the boat was jerking irregularly, throwing us all over the place.
That’s when I lost it.
“Please God, please God, please God, please God, please God,” I chanted between sobs, tears pouring down my face. “PLEASE, JESUS!” I yelped after being thrown particularly hard. Alicia from Canada, sitting between me and her boyfriend, Matt, put her arm around me and comforted me.
All along, the boat was speeding toward land. Soon, we were told to come outside onto the bow. The lifeboat would be waiting to take us to shore.
The rain stung bitterly. I was ready to jump into the lifeboat, drybag and backpack in hand, when we got an unpleasant surprise:
“The lifeboat is not working right now,” our tour leader, Gerry, told us. “You must jump into the water and swim to land.“
By this point, the starboard (right) side of the boat was rapidly sinking, putting the boat at a sharp angle. Gerry directed us to jump from the port (left) side, several meters high in the air.
At this point, I should probably mention that we had a baby on board.
This little Danish baby was only ten months old. It was a surprise to have a child on board, but everyone fell in love with this adorable, Woody Woodpecker-coiffed cherub right away. The Indonesian crew were especially crazy about her.
So knowing that she was still on board, that she would have to jump, made me hysterical.
With so few life jackets on board and life boats that didn’t work, obviously, there was nothing for the baby. Her father tied a scarf around her and tied the other end to his wrist. He jumped into the rocky ocean, holding her high above his head.
I later found out that her father was 26 – the same age as me.
Could you imagine holding your child and jumping off the end of a sinking boat, not knowing what you would land on?
I can’t even begin to imagine what her parents went through.
At that point, something in me snapped. Emotions left my body – it was time for business.
I hurled myself over the edge of the boat and landed in the water, the two Danish girls following me moments later. The water was warm despite the chilly rain, and in no time flat, I had dog-paddled around the boat to where my feet touched slippery rocks.
This was Komodo Island — yes, one of the two islands in the world filled with komodo dragons, animals that can kill a human with a single bite. Previously on this site, I said that Komodo Island was one of the five places I would never visit because the dragons terrified me.
Now, here I was, waves slamming me face-first into rocks, washing up on shore in a Vang Vieng tubing t-shirt and hippie pants with no guide and no defense against the giant lizards.
As we climbed up the shore, an eerie sense of calm came over us. Even the baby was silent as we watched bursts of lightning illuminate our sinking boat, the crew frantically trying to salvage the engine.
I had to do something.
“Does everybody have their partner?” I yelled.
“Yes,” a few people called out.
That’s when I realized that solo travelers are at a disadvantage when it comes to disasters – nobody is looking for them. I had to make sure the four of us were safe.
“Is Tree here?” I shouted.
“Yes, I’m here. Right behind you.”
“Is Betti here?”
“She’s over there.”
“Is Jens here?”
“Everybody!” a crew member yelled out. “You cannot stay here. You must climb the rocks!”
The tide was low, but it wouldn’t be for long. The crew directed us to follow the coastline in the hopes that we’d get to a safer location.
We spent the next thirty minutes or so climbing and climbing. I was thankful that I had worn my good sandals; many of my shipmates were slicing their feet open with each step.
After what seemed like hours, a speedboat showed up. A live-aboard dive boat, the Moana, had answered our distress call, and we could go there right away.
I was so excited, I let out a whoop.
I charged back into the water and flopped onto the speedboat face-down, doing a Tobias Funke-esque roll in the process. “Graceful as a swan,” I cracked.
Humor. It’s always been my defense mechanism.
Captain Ingo, from Germany, welcomed us aboard the Moana. If Perama was supposed to have the “nicer” boats, this dive boat could have been the Titanic. Comparatively, it was pure luxury. No sleeping on the deck here!
The crew immediately brought us towels and t-shirts and served us steaming mugs of coffee and tea. Meanwhile, a young German passenger kindly offered his cabin to the baby and her parents.
I used this time to quickly make a video documenting the scene:
We had arrived on the Moana at around 4:15 AM, two hours after our boat had hit the reef.
There was nothing to do in the meantime — the rescue boat wouldn’t be there for hours.
Eventually, I went into the back closet with the Danish girls, collapsed on top of a giant bean bag, and fell asleep.
A few hours later, I woke up to sunshine. Everyone was in better spirits. We ate breakfast; we talked; we planned the stories we’d post all over the internet in English, Danish, German and Spanish.
And adorable baby Ellen, now wearing diapers fashioned from towels, continued to charm us all.
At around 9:45 AM, the rescue boat arrived, complete with the Harbor Master. This boat would take us to Labuan Bajo, Flores, which was the original midpoint of the cruise.
Though we tried to get them to sail to the wreckage, just so we could see if our luggage survived, the crew said it wasn’t safe.
To our delight, they said that they were able to save some bags, and that they’d go back for more later.
Let me tell you something – after being shipwrecked, the last thing you want to see on your rescue boat is a HIGH SMOKER sticker in the captain’s cabin.
Three hours later, we landed in Labuan Bajo and got some lunch — and our first WiFi access in days.
Most of my shipmates decided not to tell their families about the shipwreck. I knew mine would find out immediately due to Twitter and Facebook — so I gritted my teeth and sent them an email, assuring them I was fine and begging them not to worry.
Late that night, our salvaged luggage was brought to Labuan Bajo. Immediately, we went down to the pier to see if any of our belongings had survived. I was still praying for my passport.
And it was there. All three of my bags were there, and my passport was still snugly in my purse, albeit waterlogged! I kissed it. Unbelievably, my credit cards had survived as well.
But my happiness was short-lived –
Our bags had been ransacked.
How did we know?
Zippers were unzipped – hidden, random, inner zippers – and valuables were taken out, the pockets were refilled with Anker beer cans and Ritz cracker tubes, and then they were zipped up again.
There is NO WAY the water did that.
My shipmates believe that they were robbed by the Perama crew.
While I make no comment about this allegation, let me ask — what would YOU think?
Pandemonium erupted as my shipmates and the crew yelled back and forth at each other. Through all this, the attending police officers, who didn’t speak English, joked and smoked with the crew.
By then, I had had enough. I took my putrid, petrol-soaked, empty bags – everything was gone except for my pair of Nike sneakers, my purple long-sleeved shirt, my Boston Celtics keychain, and my waterlogged computer – and went back to the car.
Over the next few days, police reports were filed. Sarongs and toothpaste were purchased. Thrillingly, I was interviewed for a story in the Bali Times.
My parents each emailed me with the message, “It’s time to come home!” When your divorced parents send you identical messages, you KNOW it’s serious.
I told my parents that I had a month and a half of travel left and wasn’t going to let this stop me. I would take it easy — no more boats in Indonesia — and I had friends who would watch over me in Thailand.
Through all this, I was emailing Perama’s manager, Diana Perama Aryati, asking for help getting back to Lombok. Diana responded that I should have empathy for the company, saying they were going through a difficult time.
You can imagine what my response to that was.
Perama eventually refunded the cost of the trip and paid for two lunches, two dinners, and two nights’ lodging in Labuan Bajo. We were not offered transport back to Lombok.
I flew back to Bali on my own dime two days later.
Here’s the truth: Perama Tours has a reputation as the “safer” cruise from Lombok to Flores. But people need to realize that “safer” in this context does not mean “safe,” nor anything even remotely close to “safe.”
Half the life jackets on the Perama boat were unusable. Had we had a full boat, people would have had to go without. Additionally, both life boats malfunctioned as soon as we had an emergency.
Boats sink all the time in Indonesia – including tourist boats. Safety standards are far worse in Indonesia than in other Southeast Asian countries. For Perama to be a “safer” option is virtually meaningless.
Small boats and fast ferries are often the boats that sink. The fast ferry to the Gili Islands sank twice last year.
Had I known the reality of how dangerous Perama boats are, I never would have set foot on board.
Do you want to visit Komodo Island? There are safer ways than going with Perama.
A much safer way is to take a cheap flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo, Flores, and to do a day trip to Komodo Island or Rinca.
This way, you’ll avoid dangerous night sailing and you won’t lose all your belongings in the event of a shipwreck. Yes, it might cost a bit more — it’s worth it. Your life is worth the extra dollars.
Additionally, do not take a boat in Indonesia during the rainy season. The rainy season runs roughly from November to March.
I am incredibly grateful that everybody survived the shipwreck and that nobody was seriously injured. I am particularly grateful to Gerry, the only Perama crew member who helped us get off the boat safely. Gerry is only 18 years old, but his maturity is far beyond his years.
I am making it my mission to inform travelers of how dangerous it is to travel Indonesia by boat.
It is far, far more dangerous than other countries in Southeast Asia.
Do you know anyone traveling to Indonesia? Please forward them this post. There’s not enough information out there, and people need to know the risks.
I was lucky. You may not be.
I received a complimentary five-day Hunting Komodo by Camera tour from Perama Tours. As you can see, it turned out quite differently than we both envisioned. All opinions, quite obviously, are my own.