The Boat Trip Incident

The big boat

There was a little incident on a boat trip while we were in Donggala.  One of the German guides was to accompany us on a day trip to two dive sites across the bay.  Paul was a tad disappointed it wasn’t one of the Indonesian guides because the German tended to get quite cross with him, for example, for failing to provide a running commentary on his air supply.  Her mantra was “The dive is my responsibility, I am the guide” and when it’s said over and over again in a German accent it can get a bit tedious to a fairly experienced diver (particularly as he seemed to be unfairly singled out for this sort of treatment – he is neither reckless nor irresponsible).  And anyone that knows the Wooky will know he doesn’t take too kindly to being told what to do by anyone.  Ever.  Me, I was tolerating a lot of hectoring, given my novice status, happy to accept any advice thrown in my general direction.

We left at 9.00am after breakfast on the big boat and headed north around the top of the bay to the two dive sites about 90 minutes away.  They were both wall dives which I was very excited about as I hadn’t dived a wall before.

Moorish idols doing their thing

The first dive went without a hitch and after surfacing we climbed back on board for lunch (the details of which escape me but which I am sure consisted of rice and fish followed by a banana). In the meantime, the captain turned the boat around and began heading to the next dive site.  Quite soon the waves started to pick up and the sea became rather choppy.  Indonesian boats are wide, low slung affairs with long extended bows rising high out of the water. They are beautifully crafted wooden vessels but in choppy waters such a relatively large boat with a wide shallow keel feels alarmingly unstable to a non-seafarer like me.

As the swell increased the waves started to lift the boat higher out of the water, and as they rolled away underneath the hull came crashing down harder and further each time.  Inside the boat, having just begun to dry out after the first dive, we were becoming drenched again by the waves as we lurched about in all directions, clinging on to avoid being flung about like rag dolls.

A particularly lovely nudibranch

After about half an hour of this excitement we reached the second dive site and the captain anchored as near to the shore as he could to try to shelter from the worst of the conditions. Still being thrown about we started to gear up, carefully pulling on our wetsuits trying not to lose our balance, slipping and sliding around on the deck.

The boat was still lunging about erratically in all directions and it became even more difficult to maintain balance once we had strapped on our BCDs and tanks; trying to shuffle about in slippery fins on a wet deck was nigh on impossible.  These were diving conditions with which I was particularly unfamiliar and I felt a little uneasy. However, I am famous for being a wuss and managed to quell my anxiety.

As we sat in a row on the side near the boat railings waiting to enter the water I could hear Paul muttering something under his breath about this not being a very good idea but knowing my propensity to panic he continued making reassuring noises to me. I still had my own concerns – throwing yourself into the sea is one thing but trying to climb back on a boat which is bobbing about like a cork in a washing machine is another thing entirely.

The view from the boat setting off from the beach

The German jumped in first and beckoned us both forward.  Paul followed and immediately the sea became a bit wild and choppy forcing them both to grab hold of the rope at the side of the boat, presumably to avoid being swept away.  When there was something of a lull the German frantically waved and yelled at me to hurry and jump in which was easier said than done.  Fully geared up, fins and all, I had to negotiate sideways along a slippery narrow section to the gap in the railings where I then had to balance on the edge before finally hurling myself in.  I found it challenging, to say the least, but surprisingly managed to keep calm and launched myself overboard.

A typical “wall” scene but sadly a bit fishless

As soon as I hit the water we were instructed to immediately swim quickly away from the boat and then we descended.  The last thing I heard was Paul saying something along the lines of “I don’t much fancy our chances of getting back on the boat in these conditions”.  With that statement ringing in my ears we descended into the relative calm underwater.

Both dives were lovely, particularly as it was a new experience for me, hovering weightless in the water gliding gently up and down the coral wall examining little nooks and crannies, looking for strange critters and watching the fish, unable to see the ocean floor beneath and straining to see what you can out in the deep. Parts of the wall overhang above and when you look up towards the surface you get a completely different perspective than when you dive along slopes and across coral gardens.  The fish behave differently too and swim vertically up and down fairly close to the wall avoiding larger fish which can be spotted lurking about in the deeper waters waiting to pounce on their lunch.  It was, for me, yet another amazing underwater experience.

Our skilled captain at the helm

The conditions underwater could not have been more different from those at the surface, calm with only a little current.  As it turned out throughout the dive both Paul and I had niggling concerns about how we were going to climb back on board at the end; concerns which were reinforced every time we looked up and to see the surface water swirling around overhead.

Getting back on the boat indeed proved to be another story entirely.  When we reached the surface the boat was anchored about 15 metres away and the plan was to swim towards it around the front of the bow to reach the other side where the ladder was.  The German barked these instructions to us one minute and the next she was gone and back on board quick as a flash (or like a rat up a drain pipe, to quote the Wooky).  So much for the dive being her responsibility.

In the meantime the Wooky made it quite close to the boat but I was struggling to make very much progress being thrown about by 2 metre waves.  The Wooky grabbed hold of the anchor rope and waited for me all the while encouraging me on.  I managed to reach the anchor rope and a bit beyond when suddenly a huge wave swept the boat up into the air and around at the same time, and as I looked up all I could see was the bow bearing down on me which, from my position in the water, was a tad scary.  At that point I just couldn’t bring myself to swim anywhere near the bow.  The front of the boat was swinging about all over the place and although I wasn’t panicking (per se) I was also in survival mode and just could not force myself to try to get around in front of the bow when the boat was being thrown about like it was.

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Another typical “wall” shot with an impressive fan but again rather fishless.

Instead, with the Wooky close by, I made my way around to the side nearer to me and after taking off my gear and handing it up onto the boat the German and a very skinny Indonesian hauled me out of the water (there was no ladder).  It was all rather undignified and unceremonious – I felt like a harpooned seal and in the process landed heavily on my ribs and banged my knee but I was past caring and just relieved to be back on board.

Meanwhile, having got me to safety the Wooky was still in the water, and on the wrong side of the boat and there was no way anyone was going to be able to haul him out of the water.  Instead he relinquished his weight belt and his BCD, swam around the rear of the boat to the other side and climbed back on using the ladder.  I’m sure he is part Wooky, part fish.

The bow – while the waters were calm

We were both a bit shaken, a bit battered and bruised and slightly peeved.  I was reassured by Paul that although I was never really in any danger I hadn’t particularly overreacted either (he would have told me if I had, I can assure you). We both agreed that the dive really should have been called off when the weather conditions changed and as the guide it should have been up to the German to assess the situation and at least consider calling it off.  He was annoyed that he hadn’t called it off himself but, as had been drilled into us umpteen times before, the dive is the guide’s responsibility and as an experienced dive master and instructor, we trusted the German’s judgment.  Had I been given the choice I would have elected not to go but given my reputation as a wuss I trusted the guide to weigh up the situation (particularly a guide who had been quick to criticize my skills and experience).

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The calm before the mayhem

We brushed the whole situation off and put it down to experience but I cracked a rib in the process and injured my knee which now feels a bit unstable and those injuries have limited us a bit which is a bit annoying.  In future we will both of us trust our instincts and not be afraid to call a dive off if we are at all uncomfortable. It goes to show it is easy to forget the first rule of diving that if you are in any way unsure or uncertain then you don’t go into the water, no questions asked.  So if there is a moral to this tale it is that you should never forget that rule. Lesson learned!

On the upside, we saw dolphins but they didn’t hang around long enough for a photo shoot (bloody wildlife!).

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