LOST IN THE DARK
In 2021, I sailed my Gulf 32 sailboat from Honolulu Hawaii to Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands. It has been on a mooring in the lagoon ever since.
To get to the shore and back, I use a roll-up inflatable diinghy that can be transported in the trunk of a taxi. However, of late, I have been staying on the boat for long periods with the dinghy tied up alongside and then tied up at the “Shoreline” dock owned by the RRE Hotel. Everybody knows each other here and I have my name, boat name, phone number etc marked on the hull of the dinghy. I can safely leave the dinghy there for several days when staying at the house of my adoptive family. Sometimes I have have to stay ashore for a while if the weather is is really windy, since I have to row back and forth - difficult or even impossible if very windy with surface waves.
I always try to get to the boat before it becomes too dark, although I have rowed before at night if there is moonlight. Like several other boats I have seen, I had no anchor light. I also have no searchlight and my hand held VHF radio was lost or had been stolen.
The events below started on Monday March 20th 2023. After doing some work all day on my new lap-top at Majuro Computer Services (MCS) I did some shopping at the local K&K store. I did not accurately know the time, since my iPhone was still being repaired at MCS. I had a ride promised that did not arrive. Eventually, after a long wait, I got a taxi to Shoreline. I stowed my laptop computer and food etc in a large plastic box that I use to keep things dry. It was now twilight and I started rowing past the moored boats that I recognized making fairly rapid progress because the wind and little waves were going in my general direction.
I finally got to the last moored boat that I recognized (SV Lucille) that is only about a 100 yards away from my own, but it was so dark that I could not see it. There was another old catamaran that used to be very close to my boat but it had been moved a day or so before. I sort of guessed where my boat should be but still I could not find it. Then I noticed that “Lucille” was now a long way back. I tried to row back to it but it was as if the dinghy was stuck on something and would not move. In actual fact, my rowing was futile against the waves that that were now getting bigger. I WAS TOTALLY LOST and did not recognize where I was, but I was now amongst little islands with trees growing on them and I had difficulty even trying to get back past them.
I saw a large freighter coming past me and I was a close enough to shout but nobody heard me. I was now out really deep in the lagoon with no clue to my real location. I could see another orange colored ship that was brightly lit but it was too far out to try.
Then I noticed a ship or large fishing boat that was extremely well lit with white lights and, although fighting the oncoming waves, I rowed as fast as I could towards it. I was almost within hailing distance then it started to move away very slowly but I could not catch up. It was probably making towards the dock at Uliga.
I was frustrated and tried to think what was best to do. The lit-up boat was much closer than the distant shore at Uliga and Delap.. Should I try to catch up to it now that it seemed to be stopped, maybe at anchor? So I rowed as fast as I could, but now one of the pivot points for the oar was creaking and sticking, using up even more effort. I still could not get closer and the waves were getting bigger and I had to attack them frontally. After a while, I noticed that the brightly lit ship was even farther away. Maybe it was moving again, or I was being pushed backwards by the waves.
II was near these little islands with trees. Could I tie up to one? Then I noticed that there were also tall cell phone towers sticking out of the water that would be easier to tie up to.. Should I try to tie up to one to get some rest? I had now been rowing for three or four hours and had hardly eaten all day except for a chocolate bar at the Shoreline dock. The waves were now steep and breakers were “growling” as they went past. Previously, a side-swipe wave had dumped water all over me and got some water in the box protecting my stuff. I stopped and made sure that the lid of the box was properly closed. I was now so tired and dispirited that I was beginning to think negative thoughts and was praying to GOD for help. I was totally exhausted and could not row any more.
I stopped to take a rest, allowing the dinghy to drift. I opened the box and took out another chocolate bar and drank a whole bottle of Sprite. I put water on the sticking pivot for the oar. When I tried to row toward the shore where I would like to be (Uliga/Delap area). I realized that it was futile. I tried to analyze the situation logically and realized that I was OK unless one of the bigger waves capsized the dinghy and I was worried about my new laptop getting wet.
During this time I must have drifted even further and not noticed that between these rows of trees, the the shore was a lot closer and that i could actually make progress towards the shore now that I was not fighting the waves and wind. The waves were now getting less steep as I was being sheltered by the trees .
At first I was making to a brightly lit warehouse of some sorts or a bar with colored lights, Then, as I got closer I could see street lamps and a VERY brightly lit building with floodlights onto the water and what appeared to be some sort of landing slip. There was a pronounced swell and I saw steps with a railing and a slope of coral rocks (NOT a slip after all). The dinghy was crashing against the steps by motion of the swells. I grabbed the rail and managed to tie up to it. The dinghy was still being sucked back and then crashed onto the sloping rocks. I was wearing my old boating shoes so would not cut my feet and so I hopped out of the dinghy and dragged it up a little way.
The place looked like a very expensive mansion. I called out but nobody was around. I then walked onto the flat area and noticed a security guard in a little booth inside a huge gate. I called him and explained what had happened and he said that he would have to call his boss. The head security guy came and conferred with the other guard, who poured me a large cup of water. They gave me permission to bring the dinghy ashore and helped me carry it to a small flat area. It took the three of us to remove the boat, bail the water out of the floor of the dinghy and then carry it to the flat area where we removed the oars and put the dinghy upside down.
I asked where I was - was I as far as MIR (Marshall Islands Resort)?. He said you are way past there on long Island almost to the airport! (About 20 miles by road from shoreline). He said you are in the American Embassy!
He called a taxi driver he knew and he soon arrived with a lady friend who lives by the water and said it was not that windy! I was broke and thought the people in the house would have difficulty paying the $10 taxi fare (although I did not say that). The lady in the taxi said “don’t worry I will pay the taxi fare”
We drove to the house of my adoptive family in Delap near the Co-op High School . I knocked on the door and said who I was. Eventually the lady of the house (grandmother of my step daughters) opened the door and made a place for me to sleep. I was amazed to hear that it was now 4 am!
I lay on a flat board with a blanket but could not sleep - my mind was whirling! Then I remembered that the Sprite I had bought was to mix with a little bottle of Vodka when I got to my boat. So I sipped neat Vodka until I fell deeply asleep.
Some takeaway thoughts. Amongst my regrets when I was having negative thoughts was “what am I doing here?” It was so much easier running my business in Hawaii! But the people and society in the Marshalls are wonderful. People are kind and helpful. Should I sell the boat and once more sacrifice solvency for the business and some family members out of stubbornness? There were other less logical thoughts as well as some very personal thoughts. I was surprised that nobody in the house was overjoyed to see me safe and sound although I did get sort of an apology about my missed ride from the store that would have saved about 40 min to get the last of the twilight.
I also learned something about myself: Although I was scared, I tried to be logical and brave, and I really had only myself to blame for the situation, since I left it so late to set off to the boat. I sort of expected to survive out of ego and I was much more worried about the new laptop computer possibly getting wet! My heart must be OK after 6-7 hours of heavy rowing! And I am strong in mind and muscles!
Lesson for the future - be prepared as I always used to be and don’t row in the dark!
I slept all the next day (Tuesday) and on Thursday, I called the number of the Security Supervisor and said that I would come on Friday to pick up my dinghy to bring it to the house in Delap.
As agreed, I got a taxi on Friday to the US Embassy, that was on the opposite side of the road from what I had remembered. This was the main Embassy, with security checks etc. I explained why I was there. They made some calls and a lady eventually came over from where my dinghy was located. I had made shore to the actual compound for the mansion of the US Ambassador, who was out of town and the lady was the live-in caretaker.
I asked to see the area from which I had rowed in ,wanting to see the little islands with trees and the cell-phone towers. They were almost on the horizon. That just shows how one can be so disorientated in the dark!
There were workers doing repairs and redecorating of the residence and one of the guys (who had previously been with the US army in Afghanistan) said the joke going around was that the dinghy belonged to Russian commandos!
I spent about 2 hours scraping off weed and barnacles from the bottom of the dinghy so that it would not be too messy to be carried in the trunk of a taxi. I took a selfie on my iPhone and was shocked to see how skinny and haggard I had become.
One of the workers offered his flat bed truck to drive me home with the dinghy fully inflated . The driver (of part Japanese descent) would not take any payment but I forced him to take $20 for gas.
Since it was still windy for several days, I stayed at the house and had a bunch of little Marshallese girls helping me scrub the bottom clean. Residue from the barnacles could not be removed except with acid. I think that I need to introduce an antifouling barrier cream for inflatable dinghies! Also I may buy some solar-operated lights for the boat. I definitely need to replace the hand held VHF radio.