Across the Equator and a close call

Furthur crossed the equator for the third time in the remote Spice Islands of Indonesia. Crossing the equator was a lifelong dream, I studied the various old customs sailors have performed for centuries and edited them down to the ones I thought appropriate, no keel hauling today. The British Navy had a long list of tortuous traditions, most very hard on the first time crossers, Polliwogs. All of you are a Polliwog until you make your first crossing of the center of the earth on a vessel—airplanes do not count! 

The main theme is to honor Kink Neptune, the ruler of the Seas. The senior Shellback, the name designated for veterans, represents the good King and administers the ceremony. On my first crossing Bob was our Shellback and I made him a crown, Liz and I took the tradition of cross dressing, I with a wig and her with a beard, both cut out of an old t-shirt. We crossed at 4 am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I was thrilled.

The second crossing was also in Indonesia last year on our way to Singapore. We were cruising with Sea Hog and at their inspiration, I joined them to swim naked across the equator, a rare opportunity I could not pass. We anchored right on the dotted line that separates the north from south.

This crossing also was in Indonesia although hundreds of miles east. The girls, although shy, did leap from the top deck and swam across the line. I had made them official Shellback certificates at the order of King Neptune, of course. This year crossing puts us in the most remote cruising area I have seen. The closest town is fifty miles away and most of this area is uninhabited except for a few very small villages. As it is equatorial there is some rain and the flora is very jungle like.

It has been over twenty days since we have seen another cruising boat or white person. This is real exploring, no cruising guides, no history of good places or not good places to go, no dive information. We are on our own.

It is in this spirit of exploration that I pulled up to a small sand spit emerging from the sea. The chart showed this pinnacle jetting up from one thousand feet of depth. This is usually a great indication of a spectacular dive site. The spit was the usual quarter mile off from the chart but with the glassy smooth water it was easy to sea. The crystal clear water made spotting the shoal easy and we anchored just off the reef in 45 feet of water. The current pulled Furthur onto the reef and we had six feet under the keel. A quick pop under the boat showed no impending area any shallower so I was comfortable with the depth.

We donned the dive gear and first checked out the anchor. It was lying between two large dead coral heads and the chain ran along the bottom winding up the wall to the reef, the anchor looked set. The first dive took us around the wall and we saw a great amount of fish, eels and other wonders. The visibility was very good. Back on the boat Sion had prepared a great lunch after which Simone took her for her first open water dive of her course. The seas were calm, the tide at its lowest and the boat safe, or so I thought.

Eedra and I did a second dive while the teacher/student was at work. This time we sadly saw more evidence that this reef had been victim to the horrible practice of dynamite fishing, such a stupid and short sided way to catch fish. We reverse our course around the reef and surfaced about were the boat should be.

What followed was one of the most horrifying sites I have ever seen. The boat was not there! I spotted the reef and looked out to see Furthur in the distance. The sky was dark grey and a rough chop had replaced the mirror like sea we had left. Eedra surfaced and I made the decision to go for the boat. I did not know what had become of Simone and Sion, they might be on the boat? I told Eedra to swim the short distance and get on the reef, land is the safe place to be. I headed out to the boat in the distance.

It is hard to judge distance in a case like this and I had no idea how fast the boat was drifting. The seas were rough but no wind or rain. I swam on my back making large scissor like kicks which do make good speed with my large split fins. After a while I looked and to my joy the boat was getting larger, I was swimming faster than she was drifting. At this time I knew I could catch her and I dropped my weight belt to give me more speed.

It is times like this that I put my fate in the hands of God and I prayed. I have a firm belief that God looks after me and has a plan for me. I have been guided on this voyage and for reasons I will learn someday, I am supposed to be here. It is also possible that I will make my end sometime doing the things I love to do, I have survived many times when doom knocked on the door and lived through a life fraught with possible peril, but here I am. I was also kicked with guilt, not bad enough putting myself in this mess but I had three people counting on me. These thoughts raced through my mind as I huffed and puffed and kicked for all I had in me.

The boat seemed to stop and the anchor provide some drag as she went from a beam to stance-indicating drift- to a bow in the wind stance indicating the anchor drag in the thousand foot deep water. One hundred and fifty feet of chain and a huge anchor do create drag. As the boat got bigger I could see in the pilot house and I knew I could make it. I started my plan to retrieve the others. I had one thousand PSI of air left in the tank so I put the regulator in my mouth and rolled over for the last sprint to the boat.

I hit the swim ladder with a loud, “thank you God!!!!” jumped up the ladder and headed for the pilot house. The Cummins fired up and I hit the air horn to let the others know I was on the boat. I move forward as I raised the anchor.

Soon I could see the spit and the two heads popping up next to it, where is the third. A quick glance and I saw the bright red safety marker of a diver and recognized Simone. I quickly got her on board and then the others. When all three were safe on board I began to shake and shed a tear.

Curiosity got me and the course of the boat kept on the computer made calculating the swim easy, it was .35 miles, just over half a kilometer, or over 500 yards. Much more than the test swim I was so worried about passing in my dive master course. A testament to what total fear can make an old man do, hahaha.

The crew acted exemplarily. They did go to the reef as I had instructed and stayed together. Apparently they could see my kicks until I rolled over for the last push. When Simone lost sight of me she decided to head for the boat too, hence her location when I found her. I was very proud of them, no one panicked, and all stayed calm and did what had to be done.

I tried to piece together what had happened. We had been in the same place for several hours, the boat was sitting right and the anchor secured. When I got on the boat it was very wet and the pilot house floor was soaked, indicating a strong rain. There were squalls in the distance all day but we had been basking in the sun, none seemed any closer than five miles away and very isolated and small.

I surmised that a small but strong squall hit the boat from the stern about when the tide changed releasing the hold the ebbing current had on the boat. It had to have drug the boat to the left to free the winding chain then straight out from the reef in just the right angle to lift the anchor from the two rocks holding it. It was a “perfect storm” effect of three environmental changes happening in just the right strength and sequence to make the effect. All this happened in less than thirty five minutes.

With all safe on board I headed to the next planned anchorage. Sion brought me a chocolate bar and a coke to the pilot house. That night our “gratitude sharing” took on a deeper meaning.