Chapter 10. Six Days in a Lifeboat on the Open Sea

We trimmed our sails and set a course due East, hoping to get to Sumatra or one of the nearby islands. To the best of my knowledge, Captain Bird did not communicate with any of the other boats, but, all the boats were heading East when the sun set and, due to the darkness, we could not see one another. It was around 8 p.m. that Captain Bird instructed, Bazlur Rahman, the chief Steward, who had been put in charge of the water tanks, to give each one of us a biscuit and two ounces of water. According to Board of Trade regulations each life boat had to carry a supply of water, biscuits and milk for the number of survivors it was authorized to carry.

The Captain had me settled on the starboard side thwart near the stern of the boat which was the last place I should have been on that first night. The sea was not too calm and heavy swells were following us. Each time the stern of the boat went down, sea water would rush into our boat soaking me from head to foot. I cannot describe how painful it was as the salt water washed by burns and other wounds. It was the most uncomfortable and painful night I had spent. However, it was due to the grace and merciful blessings of the Lord Almighty, quite unknown to me at the time, that it was the salt water washing my wounds that eventually helped to save my wounds turning septic. The anti-septic qualities of the ‘salt sea water’, I came to know later, was one of the discoveries of the Second World War.

The following morning none of the other four boats were in sight. It was a bright morning and the sea was calmer than the night before. The captain gave orders for all the wounded – Feast, Hodges, the coal trimmer, Munir and myself – to be moved to the fore part of the boat and asked the doctor to take charge of them. Of the four of us, Feast must have been the most uncomfortable, for he was wedged more or less upright against a coil of rope; I was lying on the port thwart, with Munir above me, while Hodges was on the starboard thwart. The poor fellow had a shell splinter in his left lung, and each time he took a breath we could hear the air wheezing from the hole in his chest, rest of the officers and crew sat up on the other thwarts and rowed, in turns. Whenever there was a sufficiently strong breeze the sails were put up.

During the day the sun shone brightly and the heat was intense, without cover and under a burning sun – we were not very far from the Equator. We all prayed for rain, and when it did rain, it rained good and hard, filling every bucket and tin pot available, and soaking us wet through the skin. Some of the men squeezed water from their clothes in to their mouths. As for me, with my hands and arms having become stiff – I could not move them – all I could do, lying on my back, was to open my mouth and gulp down the rain water. The drop in temperature that came with the rain was very welcome. We remained dripping wet until the sun came up again and dried our clothes.

We were on the open sea with no land, which must have been miles and miles away, in sight. There was water all round us and, once in a while I heard the people say that sharks were following us. I was reminded of a famous line: “Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink.” [from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge]

I regret to say that the behaviour of some of the crew left much to be desired. With very few exceptions they were panic stricken and reluctant to obey orders. Most of them had managed to get off the ship with bundles of clothes, blankets etc. The captain even threatened to throw their belongings over board. The biggest nuisance was the Chinese carpenter, John. Every morning he would strip himself naked and sit over the gunwale of the boat to ease himself. Members of the crew abused him and he swore back at them.

The junior Radio Operator, whose name I have forgotten, sat on the thwart next to me and very kindly gave me water to drink and helped me to eat the biscuit at given times. We had four meals a day, each meal consisting of a biscuit and two ounces of water. Time and again the men thought that land was sighted but it always turned out to be a cloud. At night, Munir, who lay on the thwart above me with his feet, full of blood, next to my head, would toss and turn with pain and agony and his feet would brush past my nose. When this happened I would hold my breath for a few seconds. The wooden thwart on which I was lying had a steel band below my back which kept sticking in to my wounds. For the first few days I had nothing to put under my head. The Captain was so kind and thoughtful that he gave me his warm dressing gown to use as a pillow under my head.

On one of our nights at sea, we met with a severe storm. The sea was so rough that, quite often it seemed our boat would turn over. It rained very heavily too, and a rough shelter was made by spreading a piece of canvas over the boat. The canvas was pressing hard on my nose and I found it difficult to breathe. But, I could, at least lick it with my tongue and feel satisfied that a few drops of water, bitter and dirty, were going down my throat.

By six in the morning the storm had abated and, as the sun came up, one of the men sighted land. “Land ho! Land ho!” Filled with hope and energy the men pulled hard on the oars. At 2 p.m. while we were still quite a distance away, Munir, the coal trimmer succumbed to his injury and passed away. Prayers were offered for him and his body was dropped in to the sea. May his soul rest in eternal heavenly peace.

The sun was setting as we approached land. As we drew nearer many figures were seen moving on the shore. Soon one of them came out in a canoe to meet us and motioned us to follow him. He guided our boat until we entered the mouth of a fresh water stream, so shallow that water only came up to the knees of the men who now crowded round our boat. They had no clothes other than a piece of cloth tied below their waste. Each of them carried a large knife. The men in the boat could not understand a word of what they were saying, but, indicated by signs that they were thirsty.

The crowd dispersed instantly and, after a short while, returned with coconuts which they cut and all of us had a much needed drink. Then a young man got into our boat and piloted her up stream up to a point where, after tying her up, Captain Bird went ashore to try and contact the police in this unknown coastal village on, as we learnt, the Nias Island..Thank God, by His grace and mercy, He guided our boat through rough seas and stormy weather safely to reach an inhabited part on the South coast of Nias Island, about 75 miles off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.


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