Aground

Posted Nov. 20, 2023 by Grey Filastine

I didn’t want to share this story. Thinking about what happened that morning still contorts my stomach into knots. But I should at least salvage a story from this wreck.

First, let’s rewind to this paragraph from from my earlier writing on Makassar:

"The first twenty-five nautical miles of the route from Makassar to Pare-Pare is a minefield of tiny islands, sandbars and submerged coral reefs. There are three known routes, in descending order of complexity, an inner, a middle, and an outer, - the outer route is for big cargo ships and detours around the whole mess of reefs and island. The inner route is the more risky, the most direct, and the most historic. This inner passage was used by local trading ships for millenia, then formalized three hundred years ago when the Dutch marked the route with brick towers every few miles, many of which still stand today. Electronic charts don’t’ even try to document the most difficult sectors of this route, instead drawing a big pink warning perimeter. A sailor friend had paper charts on his traditional wooden ship, docked in downtown Makassar. After our departure banquet we make a midnight stop at his ship, roust the watchman, and ask him to produce the PVC tube of charts from below decks. We lay out these details charts, light them up with our mobile phones and take photos of all the sections poorly detailed in my electronic charts. For his trouble we leave the watchman with a bottle of local hooch, a pineapple fermentation, which was received with a wide smile."

Of course we took the inner route. Because of the history. Because of savings of time and fuel. Because of the fascinating seascapes. And, yes, maybe even because of the challenge. Risk-taking like this is so embedded in the DNA of Arka Kinari that I’d have felt a shirker to go around, rather than through, the labyrinth of tiny islands that lay directly in our path.

My last writing ended with us anchored aside a tiny island, a circle of sand really, which I falsely believed marked the end of the dangerous section of the passage from Makassar to Pare Pare.

The following morning we suspended the practice of keeping a watch-person on the bow with a radio, and also brought the ship’s speed back up to a confident five knots. I knew there were still some obstructions out there, but the problems were fewer and farther between. There was finally more water than not water. The Dutch ziggurats disappeared, which wasn’t itself alarming, in fact only served to confirm that we’d left behind the problematic zone.

One moment we were cruising along on a fine morning, and the next moment our seventy tons of momentous mass came to an abrupt halt.

What does it feel like to run aground? In one word, it is sickening. There’s a lurch and an alarming thud. It felt at the same time in my body as the ship's body. A punch to the gut. After a moment of pregnant silence the panic comes rushing in…. Are we going to have to abandon ship?

Everyone aboard felt the impact, or if they hadn’t felt it they quickly heard me blasting away on the ship’s horn to signal a catastrophic emergency. The crew’s instincts were good, because they immediately scattered below decks, and one even jumped overboard to inspect the hull inside and out. Was there a hole? Were we taking on water?

A few minutes later we met at the wheelhouse. No apparent holes. No water gushing in. Despite the ship sitting at a cockeyed angle atop a pile of infernal rocks, the bilges were bone dry.

I checked the height of tide- a scant twenty centimeters below high tide at the moment of impact, and falling. Any actions to get us unstuck would have to be fast or irrelevant since the lowering waters were leaving us heavier on the reef with each passing minute.

A few janky fishing boats could be spotted on the horizon. They didn’t respond to calls on marine radio so we dropped the dinghy in the water and dispatched Abizar at full speed to ask for help.

Meanwhile we did whatever we could to shake free with only physics and a Detroit Diesel at our disposal. We made a human chain to relay 500 kilograms of lead ballast from the bow to the stern. Then the crew huddled at the stern, hoping that the lead plus the weight of the crew might tip us a fraction of a degree backwards, just enough to lift the bow and motor back off the reef. I brought the motor up to 1200rpm astern, double our normal thrust. She didn’t budge.

Through the binoculars I could see Abizar had reached the distant fishing boats, and those boats pivot their bows in our direction. We prepared our longest mooring lines on the stern deck and waited.

In this pause I could look at the charts- we located precisely 0.56 nautical miles from the nearest charted danger, itself only an ambiguous red symbol for ‘rocks’. Half a nautical mile is over a kilometer, so either the charts are offset by a kilometer (this happens in Indonesia) or this reef simply isn’t on the charts (this happens even more). I felt slightly better for not routing us directly onto a charted hazard. Little consolation at the moment.

After a length of time that felt interminable but was probably only ten minutes, the two fishing boats arrived. Although instead of immediately aiding (as per international maritime regulations) they first wanted to talk about money. We had to send our best negotiator, Hardika Bagus, over to their ships to negotiate a price, losing precious minutes. What followed was the least-competent seamanship I have ever witnessed. The crew of the fishing boats did their worst best to pull us off our perch, an amazing shitshow of bad knots and bad ideas. Their motors roared without effect, belching more foul smoke than a pair of dragons with emphysema.

Twice our mooring lines snapped under the strain, and twice we re-tied and tried again. After half an hour we threw in the towel, paid the agreed fees, and sent our extortionist-saviors on their way. If there’s any silver lining to this story it’s that a dozen local fishermen earned their best pay of the year that morning.

At this point there was nothing more to do but wait nearly twelve hours for the next moment when the tide would creep higher than the moment of impact.

Simply waiting was probably the most reasonable plan from the beginning, but doing nothing also had risks, because the afternoon forecast foul weather. Waves would have bashed us back and forth against the rocks, breaching the ship through abrasion where the brute impact had failed.

For the first six hours the ship became more and more naked, pornographically exposed below the waist. I took the opportunity to scrape the barnacles from the normally-underwater sections of the hull. Sarah and Abizar joined me to pass the time, more out of solidarity than good sense, as the shallows were plagued by giant spikey sea anenomes. A few spines are still lodged in my heel, just so I can never forget this day. Meanwhile Dimitri looked for gaps between the hull and the reef, and shoved tires into any gaps to reduce abrasion. Nova made an elaborate lunch, because it’s a tradition on Arka Kinari that no matter how terrible the situation, the meals must always be excellent. I also took a moment to immortalise this colossal error by filming our shipwreck with an underwater camera, shared here.

The next six hours the waters rose, and we watched breathlessly. A desultory drizzle began at sunset, but mercifully came unaccompanied by wind or waves.

By ten at night we could feel the boat rocking with more exaggerated motion. Motion means freedom. A boat should move with the water, this day had felt like we were on a fixed object like an oil platform. The tire bumpers began to shake loose and had to be retrieved. Another good sign.

Without letting my hopes get too high, I fired up the engine, and yanked the throttle backwards to full speed astern. Was there motion? Maybe. Or maybe I just imagined it? Next I tried shaking free the same technique like a truck stuck in the mud, alternating forward and reverse to build up a rocking momentum. After the fifth cycle, with a cacophony of scrapes and cleans, and an abrupt change of angle on the deck, we slid back into the sea.

There is a moment in the cinema masterpiece ‘Das Boot’ where the submarine breaks free from the seafloor. This was that moment. Euphoria, tempered by worry, because it wasn’t over yet. First we had to dive and inspect the parts of the hull we couldn’t see earlier while she was still stuck. But this meant diving in the dark this time, under a ship with her engine on. Dimitri went down with a mask and a flashlight, and came up minutes later with nothing terrible to report.

Then there was the problem of how to get away, our reef could have been just one of a constellation of uncharted hazards, we could have been in a cul-de-sac of hazards, surrounded on three sides. I backed out slowly in the pitch darkness of a moonless night, turned 180º while praying not to smash into something in the wide turning circle, and then retraced our incoming track back towards deeper water.

The drizzle had turned to proper rain by this time, finally joined by wind and waves. I could see absolutely nothing and decided to move no more. We dropped the anchor in fifty meters of open sea, buffeted by a mild tropical storm, with no guarantee that we wouldn’t swing on our chain and bash into another invisible hazard.

Sleep was an impossibility with so much adrenaline still coursing through my blood, along with fears of how we could eventually navigate the ship north beyond these reefs to safe waters. I was standing in the wheelhouse trying to calm down when I noticed a cargo ship about ten miles east of us, steaming northbound in the general direction we needed to go. It was certainly a deeper vessel than Arka Kinari, so I figured that anywhere that it went, we could go. I called them on the marine radio and asked “what is your safe route”, they answered “we don’t know, we’re confused and improvising”. Another small consolation, because I wasn’t alone in thinking these were navigable waters, even a cargo ship with a professional crew was out there stumbling through this labyrinth in the pitch dark.

Modern ships display their GPS positions to each other, so I could watch a little icon of their ship moving across my digital charts. A windfall! It was like having some fool run across a minefield first, allowing you to watch and take notes. So I stood in the muggy rain-beaten wheelhouse the remainder of that night, marking our charts for the cargo ship’s position every five minutes until they finally reached safe waters.

At dawn we raised the anchor and cautiously navigated the ten miles to the cargo ship’s initial position, then followed their trail of breadcrumbs. We came across one of fishing boats from previous day's failed towing operations, and they nearly caused a collision in their enthusiasm to cheer and film. (video)

By early afternoon we’d exited the warren of reefs and I could finally take a full deep breath, and by nightfall we snug in bay of Pare Pare, the town of Nova’s bugis ancestors, already starting to doubt if the last 24 hours had really happened, or it was just some awful nightmare.

Arka Kinari is one tough lady, that’s what you get with a mid-century Baltic fishing boat, seventy-five years old and still able to carve a meter-deep trench through a reef and come out unscathed. A lesser boat would have been in splinters with her swimming for the nearest island.

Among unlucky incidents this was a lucky one, the only lasting damage is to my psyche.

-Grey Filastine

Thursday Island, AU