Five Years Since the Shipwreck That Changed My Life

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Every March 28, I’m reminded of the night when the boat went down.

Falling asleep on a bench and woke up with a jerk at 2:00 AM, scrambling on the floor before a crew member came in and said, “Everybody, get your lifejackets on.” The night I cried and panicked on the same bench, holding on to a Canadian friend. The night I balanced myself on the deck as it slanted more and more, then vaulted myself overboard into the surprisingly warm water as rain poured down. The night I slammed into the black volcanic rocks on shore and climbed my way to safety.

I was shipwrecked on an overnight trip to Komodo Island in Indonesia.

I don’t look back on it so much as I live. The shipwreck is part of me. I think about it daily.

Now that that five years have passed, I thought it would be an opportunity to look back and talk about how this event impacted my life.

On Gratitude

“You realize that as far as shipwrecks go, you had it good, didn’t you?” a friend asked me at one point.

Yep. He was right. I pretty much had the best case scenario.

In 2014, there was another sinking on a similar journey from Lombok to Komodo. It was far worse than my experience and my heart goes out to everyone involved. It was another reminder that we were fortunate in so many ways.

I am grateful that none of us were killed or severely injured in the wreck.

I am grateful that we were close enough to shore that the crew was able to speed to land before we had to abandon ship.

I am grateful that there were enough lifejackets for everyone on board, even though there weren’t enough for a full boat.

I am grateful that I was sleeping next to a dry bag with my debit card, phone, and camera, and that I was able to put on my sports sandals before jumping.

I am grateful that one crew member kept us calm and helped us as we jumped from the boat.

I am grateful that we landed in the rain on a part of an island where there weren’t any komodo dragons.

I am grateful that a nearby dive boat sent their dinghy to rescue us from the island after only about 30 minutes of climbing the rocks.

I am grateful (and shocked) that my passport was recovered from the wreckage.

I am grateful to my parents for supporting me and accepting my decision to continue traveling, even though they wanted me to come home.

I am grateful to the friends, family, and readers who sent me donations to replace my belongings in Asia.

On Boats and Fear

I still struggle on boats today, five years later. I tend to think about the boat wrecking the entire time I’m on board. No matter how safe and professional the boat is, my default mindset is still WHAT IF IT GOES DOWN? until we’re back on dry land.

And it can get very bad — like on the “small ferry” from Ometepe back to the mainland in Nicaragua, where it creaked loudly and pitched so hard that it had to be bailed out constantly. I was frozen in fear, squeezing my eyes shut as people vomited around me.

And on my wild overnight ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland in Scotland, the North Sea was pitching violently and I maybe got two hours of sleep. Being in an inside cabin with no escape, scenes from Titanic played in my head all night long. I was able to sleep on the ferry back only because I had partied until 8:00 AM at Up Helly Aa the night before and decided to just push through until the night.

There were all those longtail boat rides in Thailand where I fixated on the bottom of the wooden boat and the water that would leak in, slowly, slowly, waiting until it caught the attention of the drivers.

And on my first tour in Guatemala, taking a fully loaded lancha (small boat) across Lake Atitlan from Jaibalito to San Pedro. I felt like the boat was a bit overloaded with all 14 of us and our bags. Frozen in fear once again, I closed my eyes and put my head down the whole time, to the alarm of one of my guests (“Kate. What’s going on? ARE WE OKAY? WHAT’S GOING ON?” “I’M FINE, WE’RE FINE, I’VE BEEN SHIPWRECKED BEFORE”) and then vomited in the privacy of the guesthouse bathroom.

After five years, this is something that I think I’m going to have to live with for the long haul.

That said, there have also been times where I’ve improved. Sailing in Belize was a huge step in my healing process — it was a catamaran (and therefore more stable than a sailboat), we were in calm waters, we sailed during the day only, and we slept on dry land. That, plus the fact that it was insanely fun, made it an overall fantastic experience. It even made me want to sail more!

On Crowdfunding

Once I realized I was safe on shore, reality set in. I had lost all of my clothes except four items, all of my toiletries, my expensive orthodontic mouthpiece, and all my electronics and work gear (save phone and camera) were ruined, including my laptop, which I needed in order to make money. I didn’t even have a single pair of underwear.

And I was extremely low on cash. A travel insurance payment wasn’t guaranteed and it would take time.

As soon as I announced the shipwreck on Facebook, lots of friends came forward asking if they could send me money. I sent them Paypal donation links, and they contributed generously.

Then came the tough decision: would I ask my readers to do the same? Would I actively solicit donations?

I wrestled with whether or not to do this. I was in a position of privilege, traveling the world, even if I was low on cash at the moment. By no means was anyone obligated to donate to me. But a lot of people loved my site and had been reading it regularly and they wanted to help me in my time of need.

Back in early 2011, GoFundMe and similar sites weren’t the powerhouses that they are today. The way to collect donations back then was through a Paypal button. So I put it up, and also asked readers if they could donate, making it clear that just $5 would be very much appreciated (most people donated more), it was absolutely no obligation, and it would not impact our friendship whatsoever whether they did or didn’t donate.

It worked. I raised enough money to buy new tech gear, new clothes, new toiletries, and keep me afloat until I got home a month later. The first things I bought were some awful cheap dresses. Then a laptop. Then underwear. (Priorities.)

Everyone who donated got a long, heartfelt, personalized email from me. (Except for the one who donated 17 cents. My email to him was equally thankful but significantly shorter.) Later, I was able to get a travel insurance settlement, but it only covered a small amount of what I had lost.

Months later, a blogger friend was robbed of $3000 worth of photography equipment while traveling. He sought out my advice and decided to go about it the same way I did. He also had the advantage of having lots of merchandise for sale, and he encouraged people to buy that stuff if they wanted to support him.

My intention was always to pay it forward — and I have and continue to do so. I have two regular charities I support on a monthly basis (Planned Parenthood and Doctors Without Borders), I have a few hundred dollars constantly being lended out on Kiva, and I make one-off donations to other charities, but today I also contribute to friends’ fundraising endeavors. Friend running a marathon for AIDS research? I donate. Cousin looking to adopt a new baby? I donate. Friend of a friend’s husband dies suddenly, leaving her with two very young children? I donate.

And, more recently, another blogger friend was in a similar situation, robbed of her laptop while traveling and wondering whether to ask for donations. I donated. And even after the laptop was found and returned to her, I told her to keep the cash and spend it on backup software like Crashplan.

Now…how does this play into a world where people try to crowdfund their vacations?

That’s a completely different subject and one that could be its own post. If someone is soliciting donations so they can take a trip, I don’t donate to that. If someone is soliciting donations for a service trip, I don’t do that, either. I feel like money goes further if you donate to an actual organization, not for an unskilled worker to volunteer there.

I feel like my position after the shipwreck was different because 1) I had been providing my readers with free, valuable content for quite some time and 2) I had been hit by an unexpected disaster and has lost nearly all of my belongings.

I’m sure some people will read this as justification, as “do as I say, not as I do.” That’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion.

Even so, if this exact situation happened today, I wouldn’t ask for donations. I’m more financially secure and my site now earns passive income in the background, so I would have survived far more easily.

On Disaster and Solo Travel

As soon as we washed up on the island, I realized that solo travelers were at a disadvantage — we had nobody looking for us. At that point, I started calling out for the other solo travelers, making sure that all of us had made it. We all had.

This is something that I keep in mind to this day. When I’m on a day tour or doing an adventure event, I make an effort to get to know the other participants, not just the guide. Even though I’m an introvert and would be happy sticking in the background, I know that this adds to my safety, just in case the worst happens.

On Visiting Komodo Island Safely

Since the shipwreck, I’ve had around a dozen people emailing me to say that they took the same trip with Perama Tours and it was fine, so people should do it anyway.

I roll my eyes at those emails. Obviously, the boat is not going to wreck every single time! What my trip proved is that Perama Tours is not prepared if anything goes wrong. They had been navigating by flashlight. Neither of the lifeboats were in working order. The lifejackets were tangled and knotted and there were only enough because our boat was at half capacity. There was nothing for the baby — or children, for that matter. And we were robbed on top of it.

The worst part of this trip is that it involved night sailing in rough, volcanic, reef-filled waters. When we arrived in Labuanbajo, Flores, the local fishermen were dismayed that our boat had been sailing through that area at night in the first place.

If you want to visit Komodo Island safely, don’t take an overnight sailing trip and absolutely don’t travel with Perama Tours. Instead, do a day trip from the town of Labuanbajo, Flores. This way you won’t be sailing at night and you won’t have all of your belongings on the boat with you.

I’m not going to recommend any company in particular, as I haven’t experienced them myself; this list on TripAdvisor is a place to start your research.

Now, how should you get to Labuanbajo? You could fly direct from Bali or elsewhere in Indonesia, but I know some people express trepidation about flying an Indonesian airline. The decision is yours. If you don’t want to fly, you can take a series of buses and ferries across Bali, then Lombok, then Sumbawa, then to Labuanbajo on the island of Flores.

Be sure to avoid the “fast ferries” and don’t take any boats at night. See below for more on boat safety.

On the Crew

I was incensed that the crew robbed us after the sinking and even angrier that the police refused to give us a report (which we needed for insurance purposes) unless we said that the crew did nothing wrong, even though I understood why they did it.

Today, I feel a lot more sympathy for them. Working on a tourist boat is a great job, and wrecking the boat is a way to lose that great job. They were likely about to lose the best job they would ever have and did what they had to do to take care of their families. Besides, we were incredibly rich compared to them and could afford to replace our belongings eventually.

And they recovered my passport, which sank with the ship. They didn’t have to do that.

On Healing After Trauma

After the shipwreck, I splurged on a $100 flight back to Bali and checked into a crappy guesthouse in Kuta. I spent my days inside, only leaving to replenish my belongings and eat. (That said, I was without appetite for a long time after the wreck — I could only take two bites and then be full.)

Then I got a kind offer from the Alam Sari, a boutique resort outside Ubud, who offered to put me up for free until I felt better. I spent about a week there, much of it just spent hiding out and getting room service. What I appreciated the most was that the offer came open-ended, without any conditions or stipulations attached. It was low season, so they had plenty of open rooms anyway. I thanked them by providing them with content.

I didn’t realize how much I needed to be with friends until I got back to Bangkok and ran into my buds Ste and Darren during the Songkran celebrations. They were dear friends with whom I had traveled for about a month in Vietnam and Cambodia, and I finally felt somewhat normal once I tearfully hugged them.

I don’t have nightmares. The boat fears are as bad as it gets. And when I was sailing through Croatia, I couldn’t bring myself to jump off the boat with the others. It brought back too many memories.

I don’t take as many risks as I used to anymore. Yes, that might make me lame (I cannot tell you how often I hear “but you’re not adveeeeeeenturous!“), but you know what? I’d much rather skip out on a cool-but-risky activity than die and completely destroy my family’s lives in the process.

All things considered, I’m grateful that I don’t have any lingering trauma.

On Indonesia

When I arrived in Indonesia in 2011, I was several months into my Southeast Asia travels and was already feeling a bit burned out. For that reason, I didn’t explore Bali and Lombok as thoroughly as I could have, and I wasn’t as captivated by these islands as I was by other places in Southeast Asia.

Today, I don’t have much of a desire to return to Indonesia. Which is fine. I’m well aware that Indonesia has some beautiful and fascinating regions to explore, places that I would love, but I don’t feel a pressing need to return at this time.

What did leave an impression on me was the kindness of the Balinese people. Everyone was so open and friendly and interested in my life story and eager to talk for hours. It was a pure and unquestioning kindness, one that is so special when you find it, and I left the island with several new friends. (And at 5’4″, I towered over nearly all of them!)

On My Fellow Shipwreckees

We stayed in touch for a bit over email, but we haven’t talked to each other in quite a long time. I’ve lost touch with all of them, in part because some of them weren’t on Facebook and the whole internet situation in Labuanbajo was limited back then. We mostly used desktops in internet cafes, which meant impromptu friending didn’t happen. I’m glad the option is there if I need to email them.

Still, I think about them a lot. I’ve always remembered Juan and Meri’s offer to look them up if I ever come to Cordoba, Argentina.

I did recently hear from the mother of the baby on board! She commented on my Facebook page. Little Elin is doing well in Denmark. She should be almost six now.

On Boat Safety in Developing Countries

It’s important for you to know that nothing is ever 100% safe. Boat safety isn’t merely an issue in developing countries, as recent tragedies in South Korea and Italy have shown.

But traveling by boat the developing world requires extra vigilance, as countries often don’t have as stringent regulations as in developed countries. It’s not uncommon for boats to be filled past capacity or for old, rundown boats to continue to take passengers.

Boat safety is hard in particular because unless you know boats well, you don’t know what to look for. How can you tell the difference between a safe but old-looking boat and an unsafe boat? I still don’t know.

But here are tips that will help you:

Learn how to swim well before you start traveling. I was surprised at how many of my friends, especially Brits, described themselves as “not a strong swimmer” and didn’t go beyond shallow water. There is no shame in taking swimming lessons as an adult. Seriously. It could save your life.

And for my readers who are parents, teach your kids to swim from a young age. Get them into lessons if you’re not a strong swimmer yourself. Please prioritize this; it will be more difficult once they’re older.

Bring a dry bag. Today I travel with two dry bags: a small one for when I need somewhere to stash my camera and phone (5-10 liters is good), and a large one (20-30 liters) big enough to cover my day bag.

If you’re a longtime reader, you know that I always encourage you to keep your valuables (electronics, passport, medication, credit cards, cash, etc.) in your day bag, on your person at all times while in transit (excluding the backup cash and credit card hidden somewhere random in your luggage). That goes for boats as well as anywhere else. Check your luggage in the hold but hang onto your valuables as well as the big dry bag.

Avoid fast ferries; take larger, slower ferries. I’m speaking anecdotally as it’s hard to find data — but in my experience, when you hear about sinkings of tourist boats around Bali and Lombok, it’s often the fast ferries, sometimes the popular fast ferry from Bali to the Gili Islands. Also anecdotally, I’ve found that larger boats tend to be more stable, though keep in mind that anything can happen.

Stick to high season and avoid sailing in bad weather. If you’re planning a trip to a part of the developing world with lots of ferries, like Indonesia or the Philippines, you may want to time your trip to high season, when it rains less often.

Avoid night sailings. Stick to daytime sailing. (You may feel fine sailing at night in the developed world, but for the developing world I urge you to only take day sailings.)

Invest in your safety. Don’t let money be a major factor in choosing a less safe method of transport. If there’s a big difference in the quality of boats, take the nicer boat, even if it costs more or takes much longer. Be aware if you’re paying more for a quality trip or a faster trip.

If you’re taking a tour or trip, read reviews first. TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree are good places to search. The Thorn Tree is also good if you have follow-up questions. Local and regional sites are good too, like Travelfish for Southeast Asia, as well as local Couchsurfing groups for destinations.

Find a lifejacket and sit on it like a cushion. Grab it as soon as you get on the boat. If the worst happens, you’ll be prepared.

Familiarize yourself with all exit routes from the boat. This is good advice for wherever you go, but it’s especially important on boats.

On the Legacy of My Original Post

My original post had quite an impact. Years after the shipwreck, one of my readers emailed me and said that she was in an internet cafe in Bali and several people had my site pulled up and were debating whether or not to do the cruise.

I hear it all the time — “I almost did that trip and your post convinced me not to do it.” And the opposite, on occasion. Since I know the people who actually email me are a small minority, I can only imagine how many people this post has directly affected.

It also got a fair amount of press. Lonely Planet Indonesia used to refer to a “well-documented March 2011 shipwreck.” Now they briefly refer to a 2011 sinking. I actually make a regular habit of browsing Indonesia guidebooks just to see what they say about cruising to Komodo Island. Even five years later.

I will say this — prior to the shipwreck, Lonely Planet referred to Perama’s cruise as “one of the safer options.” Nowadays, they say nothing about safety and instead refer to my past sinking.

To be totally honest, the shipwreck was hugely beneficial to my career as a travel blogger. The post got widely shared in the early days of 2011 (I can only imagine what it would have been like today!). It grew my audience and also gave me credibility as a traveler. And it’s a hell of a story to tell. I honestly think that this was the point when I went from being a decently known blogger to one of the best known travel bloggers.

If the shipwreck had ended tragically, I would be carrying around quite a bit of guilt over my resulting success.

Looking Forward

Now that I’ve opined for more than 3000 words on this defining moment in my life, what’s the message I want you to take away?

Please take safety seriously. I know a lot gets said about “Don’t let fear keep you from traveling the world!” and “You could be hit by a drunk driver if you don’t travel!” and “It’s even safer than being at home!” and “Most of the time it’s totally safe!”

I get the purpose of those statements, but they’re overly simplistic. Travel can be risky. It can often be more risky than staying at home. And when you add traveling by boat in the developing world, you’re adding even more risks.

You could luck out and have nothing happen to you, like most people. Or something could go wrong while you’re traveling with a company like Perama Tours that is completely unprepared for any mishaps.

Please follow the safety advice I listed above. And if your intuition is screaming at you, that’s a sign to just say no. Even if you already paid.

If you want to visit Komodo Island, don’t take an overnight sailing trip. Do a day trip from Labuanbajo like I mentioned above. I’ve made it a mission to spread this information and I hope the overnight budget sailings eventually become obsolete.

Were you a reader back when this happened to me? What do you think now? Share away!