Tsunamis and Boats

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First, an announcement from Sunsail:

After the tragic events in South East Asia over the past few days, the thoughts and prayers of everyone at Sunsail are with all those who have suffered as a result of the earthquake and the resulting tidal waves. Sunsail has been working very closely with the overseas resort teams and the Federation of Tour Operators to evaluate the situation. This will continue. Sunsail is able to confirm that all its customers and staff in its operational areas of Phuket in Thailand and Langkawi in Malaysia are safe and well and everyone has been accounted for.All customers due to travel to Phuket up to and including Monday 31st Jan 2005 are being offered an amendment or cancellation. Any customers due to travel on a scheduled flight will need to contact the airline directly. Customers travelling to Bangkok can still travel, although if they have a land based section of their vacation, their itinerary may need to be amended. If anyone has any concerns about friends or relatives who were travelling with Sunsail to Thailand or Malaysia over the past week, please do not hesitate to contact either our US office on 800 327 2276 ext 4020 for all North Americans customers or our UK office on 02392 222 333 for all other nationalities.

Continuing reports from the tsunami zone in Southeast Asia indicate that, short of high ground, a cruising sailboat was the best place to be. Many boats rode out events at anchor or weighed anchor and got themselves away from shallow water at first opportunity. We have to speak cautiously since early reports necessarily come from areas and individuals less grievously affected. As SAIL correspondent Dave Nelson wrote from the scene, "I do not want to trivialize the loss of tens of thousands of lives, but to yachties this is also a huge event which directly affects them. I can only write about what I know, and I am a yachtie."

To see a NOAA video recreation of the shockwave, click here.

The boats of the Blue Water Rally were all in the yacht-friendly resort town of Phuket, Thailand or nearby when the tsunami hit. All the boats survived; Helen Muesch, pictured in our story, Blue Water Rally—Ultimate Road Trip, was ashore but survived with a trip to intensive care.

Dick York, owner-skipper of the J/46 Aragorn and host earlier in 2004 to SAIL's West Coast editor during the Blue Water Rally's Fiji leg, sent 'round an account to his email list. Here are a few notes.

Dick York: Many of us were in a small cove, with about 12 boats on the N side of Phi Phi Don Island. We and about 33 other rally people had spent Christmas having a mid-day dinner at a beach restaurant on the island. The bay on the south side is separated from us by a low sand link between two higher parts of the island. That sandy spit, about 250 yards wide, by 3/4 mile long, and 12 feet above sea level at high tide, was filled with dive shops, small restaurants, Thai massage parlors, and tee-shirt shops, plus local markets and food stalls. Working on and off the beach on the south bay, there were about 50 to 100 longtail boats to take tourists out, along with 20 or so speedboats, ferries which had arrived with hundreds of people, and some fishermen.

The wave sucked the water out of much of our cove, then filled it up again. At the same time, the wave was pouring over the sand spit. It did this at least three times in major fashion. The water in our small, circular bay was spinning boats like a Disneyland ride.

Several stories happening at the same time . . .

Our events: We saw the reef/beach that covers the S half of our bay uncover. The water rushing out made a giant, spinning pool, anti-clockwise, clear on the edges and brown in the center. Boats just inside us were being pulled around in this circle. Tahlequah [belonging to Helen and Ed Muesch, ashore], St. Barbera and one or two non-rally boats broke their anchor chains and spun loose. Briet and Regardless got anchors up; Paroo slipped her cable. Nademia's anchor, chain and everything else held and she stayed where she was despite the speeding, spiraling currents.

At the same time Aragorn was being pulled hard toward the sea, so I started the engine and ran it in forward. I had all hands (Leslie, Sloane, Tom and Catherine) don the large life jackets [Editor's note: their college-age kids had flown out from the States to join Dick and Leslie for Christmas] and Leslie and Tom tried to get the anchor up. The boat turned 180 degrees around our chain at least once as the wave began to flood the bay. The anchor hung once on a coral head, but we freed it using our experiences in Tuamotu, and we exited as fast as we could. I think the wave was on an ebb about then, but it is hard to tell in the crazy-quilt of those moments.

Tahlequah was manned only by Michael (the 21 yr. old grandson), Ed and Helen being ashore. Michael finally started a reluctant engine and powered out soon after us. About a quarter mile out, he wrapped a warp around the prop, but was clear of immediate danger. All the other boats except Nademia and St. Barbara (unmanned, see below) were underway, but because Paroo wanted to buoy and then slip her cable, she waited too long, and bounced off some bommies. By this time the (third?) wave had refilled the bay and was crashing on the shores around the boats, and the center of the bay was a cauldron, with swirling and standing waves jumping all over.

Outside, we picked up a couple in a double kayak who had been in a little cove. They were unhurt, but scared. They said they had seen another kayak deeper in their cove, but we never saw it ...perhaps it made it to safety in the other direction ... we pray.

Boats which were free got a mile or two off the island and milled about. There were two local longtails, some speedboats, and a few other yachties. We kept up communications on VHF 72.

Once things quieted a bit Tom and I left Aragorn under Leslie's command and dinked in to St. Barbara, who was still circling the bay (don't think she hit! a miracle). We got her engine started immediately (always leave your key in the ignition), and steered her out safely.

About this time, we heard Ed Muesch calling for his oxygen tank, as Helen had ingested water, and that he was coming out on a wooden barkentine. We got his medical stuff from Tahlequah and sent it in toward the island with John from Regardless.

I wish I could do these stories credit. They are so much larger than my words—Dick York

Editor's note: The events of the tsunami are larger than anyone's words and far beyond our scope. Among other bits and pieces we know that the Andaman Sea Rally is postponed until later in the season and perhaps will be transformed into a mission to carry relief supplies. Check in at andamansearally.com.

At Langkawi, 120 miles from Phuket, in Malaysia, two marinas were wiped out and a number of boats were lost. These are only the preliminary stories . . .

Ed and Helen's story:

SAIL readers were introduced to Ed and Helen Muesch in the Blue Water Rally story (Ultimate Road Trip) in our December issue. Ed's harrowing account is long, but it's well worth the read—K.L.

Twelve Rally boats gathered at Phi Phi Don Island, fifteen miles off Phuket, Thailand, to celebrate Christmas together. On the morning of December 26, Helen and I awoke and decided to go to the island for breakfast, leaving our grandson Michael sleeping aboard Tahlequah. It's important to explain that Phi Phi Don is a small island with a beautiful beach on the north side, the South side having open-air restaurants, shops, and luxury hotels catering to the hundreds and hundreds of tourists that visit each day. It's the picture-perfect island get-away and justifiably world famous. The two sides of the island are connected by a narrow walkway.

Strolling the boardwalk we favored a small bakery with tables, enjoying breakfast together. I saw many small children in carriages, babies in back slings, and the usual teenagers and families. I took special note of peoples faces and accents giving special attention to Americans. Ferries were arriving with hundreds of tourists emerging to enjoy Phi Phi Don for a day's visit. Following breakfast we made a last-minute decision to stop at one of many Internet cafes to respond to e-mails from family and friends. In each e-mail we stated, "Wish you were here".

At about 1045 we returned to the south beach to collect our inflatable and return to Tahlequah. Arriving at the beach we were stunned to discover little water left in the anchorage, a phenomenon we were not used too. Helen remarked she thought Tahlequah might be on sand. I said this was impossible as we were anchored in 40 feet of water a short time before.

We began dragging our inflatable through the sand to reach the now-distant water. I saw rental powerboats and Long Tails (Thai Canoes) racing toward us skidding frantically but unable to make progress because of the sand. I commented to Helen how people abuse boats and how furious it made me. The skippers of the Thai Canoes motioned us back and began jumping from their canoes to anchor them in the sand.

Looking into the distance I saw a small foam line on the horizon moving toward us. Helen & I agreed to abandon the dinghy and run back to the island for safety. Running, I looked behind to see the wave gaining distance at an un-believeable rate. Seconds later I turned again to see the wave hit a rental power boat; it broke apart as it crashed in the surf. I realized it was useless to run. I told Helen to stop and I bear-hugged her. I remember saying to myself, I can't release her no matter what.

We saw a boiling froth of sea coming at us and it seemed to go on forever. Foolishly I dug my feet into the sand hoping to withstand the wave. As it hit, I felt us smacked to the sand; I could feel us tumbling like toy dolls head over heals along the bottom. The pressure and force of the water prevented us from surfacing. As my hands were ripped from embracing Helen we both surfaced against two palm trees held there by ferocious current. Helen was in shock, staring towards the ocean motionless. I held her repeating again and again, "It's over, it's over, we survived, you'll be ok."


Dragged under again, I tried to surface but couldn't because of debris everywhere. I lost my grasp of Helen a second time. My hand grabbed a floating cushion, pulling myself to the surface only to be forced below again and again. Swallowing water I knew the end was near and felt death all around me. I remember feeling a sense of peace I had never felt before. Everything seemed to go into slow motion; quiet and very peaceful. I recall saying to myself, "I wonder how long it takes to drown" and "I wonder if it will be quick?" "It's over now, I thought, and it's ok".

Then my hand seemed to touch something rigid; it was a pipe. Grasping it I pulled myself to the surface and saw Helen's head below. Grabbing her neck I raised her above the water for air. She was unconscious, pure white and just staring expressionless. Slapping her face, I kept screaming "keep breathing, keep breathing, we can make it" over and over again.

I realized I had grabbed the long propeller shaft of a Long Tail Thai canoe. Helen slipped and began to sink below the water expressionless. Her face seemed resigned, as if to say, I've had enough let me go. Grabbing her chin I raised her again, planting her chin into the metal framework of the upturned boat.

There was a man standing in the boat staring outwards. I screamed to him to help Helen into the boat. Looking he seemed unable to move and continued staring. Attempting to raise myself into the canoe, I continued screaming at him, demanding he help raise Helen. Suddenly he reached out, grabbing Helen's hand and helping to raise her into the boat. Although seeming lifeless, I knew she continued shallow breathing.

With all my strength I pulled myself into the canoe next to Helen. She whispered to me she couldn't breathe and had awful pain in her chest. I continued to scream, "keep breathing, you made it and everything will be ok". Twenty feet away I saw a man raising a young naked woman into the canoe, I knew she was dead. Drowned people were everywhere around us. Looking towards the island I couldn't believe the destruction. All the hotels had collapsed and were sliding into the sea.

I saw two large, wooden, upturned fishing boats riding toward us on the rushing waters. Fearing that if we didn't move quickly we'd be crushed I got the captain to start the engine to move to a safer area and into deeper water clear. Continuing to hold Helen in my arms, comforting Her, I began to hear pleas for help coming from the water. People were clinging to whatever they could with what little remaining strength they had. One woman begged me to help her and grabbed a board to stretch it towards me in an effort to reach us. Reaching out I realized it wasn't long enough and gave up. Looking down into the water I knew the only way of helping her was to jump back into the water but feared I didn't have the strength left to get back into the canoe a second time. Afraid of losing Helen, my hands were frozen cradling her in my arms. A young man suddenly grabbed the side of our boat, trying to pull himself up. He begged for my help. I told him he had to pull himself up.

Some time later the Captain placed a ladder over the side for him to climb up, but he didn't have the strength. He continued pleading. I continued saying he had to find the strength to get in; my body couldn't move. I saw the captain finally move toward him but couldn't lift him alone. Putting Helen down I helped bring him aboard. The Captain then found a rope to throw to the woman nearby and dragged her aboard. I insisted the Captain had to move or we'd be crushed in minutes. Starting the engine he managed to run it. Moving away slowly I turned to hear the screams of people begging for help. I was so afraid if I stopped to help them I would lose Helen forever. I had to save Helen with what little strength I had left.

I knew Helen couldn't last long without oxygen as her lungs were filled with water. Because of her pain we didn't know if her ribs had punctured a lung. Other long-tales were moving with us, every captain standing silently and motionless staring at the island waiting for the next wave. There was total silence; no words were spoken between the boats. I asked the captain if he was ok. He responded faintly that he lost his niece on the beach. Looking seaward I saw a wooden square-rigger racing towards the island. I told him we had to reach that ship and get Helen aboard for her to make it. Leaving the safety of the other long tails he motored towards the square-rigger. As we approached I yelled to the Swedish captain that my wife needed to get to a hospital. He responded, "my ship is your ship; where do we take her?" His crew immediately helped lift Helen aboard and placed her on the deck.

I requested oxygen and he responded that he had a tank; unfortunately it didn't have enough oxygen to make the 4-hour trip to Phuket. I used his radio to call the Rally fleet in the North Bay. They informed me Tahlequah was safe; most boats had broken anchor and were headed to deeper water bracing for the next wave. I was told Michael, our crew, had a bad gash in his arm and needed medical attention. Our boat raced towards the North Bay while a couple from another boat, Regardless raced toward us with oxygen and medical supplies. The woman was a nurse, gave us both injections for pain and administered the oxygen. They returned to their yacht to brace for the next wave. Another Rally boat brought Michael with a bandaged arm travel with us to Phuket.

We raced towards a major port in Phuket only to be informed by the Rally Aragorn? that it had sustained major damage. The captain suggested going north until we found a suitable anchorage. Three hours later we transferred Helen to a hotel atop a hill and were immediately transported to the Phuket International Hospital. Upon arrival we were met by a gurney and were rushed into the emergency room. Paperwork was put aside; they wanted to know only the patient's name and injury. Within minutes X-rays indicated her lungs were filled with water, but there were no broken bones or organ damage. I was warned by the doctor the body would slowly absorb the water but there was a high risk of serious pneumonia. She would have to be transferred to a private room for the night, then to the ICU Unit.

The following day Helen appeared worse, with more chest pain and pneumonia. The x-rays indicated her lungs were continuing to fill with fluid. Anti-biotics and painkillers were administered every few hours and within two additional days the infection was under control and Helen was transferred back to a private room. Each day she continues to improve and has been informed she will be discharged after a week in the hospital, assuming all continues to progress well.

The faces and screams of the people I left behind in Phi Phi Don Bay continue to haunt me. I find myself walking the crowded hospital corridors among camera crews looking for people I might recognize from that day, but I will never know what happened to them. Riding to the hospital one morning with people from the Blue Water Rally we made an unexpected stop at the University for a medical student to volunteer. They informed me the University was providing counseling for victims of the tragedy. After sitting in the car for five minutes I said I had to stay and walked into the building. I saw people sleeping on the floor, blankets and pillows everywhere. Along the wall sat several people interviewing victims for counseling appointments. Limping to the table I said I needed to talk to someone about what happened and was provided a counselor within minutes.

A woman named Vicki brought me to a private office closed the door and sat directly in front of me. I described what happened and said I wanted one person to listen to what really happened. It was the hardest truth I've ever shared about myself. As I began to describe the people I abandoned I could still see their faces and hear their cries for help. I didn't want to hear explanations, or forgiveness; I only wanted one person to know what really happened that day. Life suddenly seems so different; my drive for pushing life to extreme challenges is numb

Talking to Helen about what to do next she stated she wanted to continue with the Blue Water Rally when healed. Another skipper volunteered to skipper our boat while his wife skippered his boat. We've agreed to stay in an apartment in Phuket to fully recover, then fly to the next Rally Port and rejoin Tahlequah at that location. The American Embassy representative seemed shocked when Helen informed him we would continue. Helen says we've done this for the last two years it has to be finished.

Blue Water Rally friends at Phi Phi Don that day are responsible for saving Helen's life and saving Tahlequah. They endangered themselves in the face of more waves to bring oxygen, medical supplies, and assistance to keep Helen live and even accompany us to Phuket International Hospital. These same people returned to the island that evening to assist those hurt in the face of the worst disaster of the century. I will never know the man who unselfishly helped pull Helen from the water in the midst of his own grief, but I will never forget his face, and the good will of the Thai people—Ed Muesch: SV Tahlequah

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