How did it come to this? This is the question that goes over and over in my mind as I grip the sides of my bunk. My knuckles are white as the hum of the motor threatens my sanity. Our small, single-hulled boat savagely rolls from one side to the other as the force of the Indian Ocean unleashes on us.
After what I can only assume has been hours laying in the dark, my bunk is beginning to feel like a coffin with body squeezed into a space that wasn’t made for anyone over the height of 5’5. The contents of my stomach threaten to make a reappearance as the tropical humidity adds to the claustrophobia. Later in the night, I awake in terror as the hatch above my bunk is torn open by a rogue wave as it crashes over the front of our boat. Feeling distraught, I continue to lay in the dark, saturated and contemplating praying for the first time in a long time, that this will all be over soon.
The next morning I awake to silence and calm. Gathering my thoughts for a brief moment, I am relieved to have survived the night. Poking my head above deck, our captain greets me with a wry smile as he slowly draws on his cigarette. “Rough night, hey?” I reply with a nod before preparing to pee over the side of the boat.
We are anchored near a small island in the Mentawai archipelago off the coast of Sumatra. We had spent the night crossing the notoriously treacherous channel between the mainland and the islands, and I am now looking out over a scene that can only be described as a heaven on earth. Small islands, lined with white sand beaches are dotted through the blue ocean. Palm trees sway in the breeze as a number of perfect waves break across shallow reef. All of a sudden, thoughts of the previous night subside and I realise that the journey was worth the reward.
We spend the day surfing perfect, uncrowded waves. After a long day in the water, we return to our boat to sit on the deck and enjoy a few beers as the sun fades towards the horizon. The mood is happy with everyone relishing the thought of not having to work for the next two weeks. As night approaches, we notice a few canoes launching from one of the islands not too far away. A short time later, the canoes approach our boat and the men in them begin their sales pitch for us to buy shells, woodcarvings and a number of other odd bits and bobs. Looking back at the situation that was to soon unfold, I should have just bought one of the carvings. Little did I know things were about to turn ugly!
Being day one of the trip, the last thing we wanted was to load up on souvenirs that would more than likely be confiscated at the airport upon our return home. After politely refusing their offer to exchange our cash for their carvings a few times, we took the ‘ignore them’ approach as they continued the hard sell.
With the light fading almost completely from the sky, the men in the canoes grew increasingly frustrated with our refusal to buy something. They began to yell and one of the younger guys threw a rock up onto the deck of our boat. Our captain had seen enough and yelled something from the edge of the boat in Indonesian. (Later, we found out that he told them not to be crazy – from experience, this is something you should never, ever say to an Indonesian).
Within seconds, things went from uncomfortable to outright carnage, as all hell broke loose. All of the men began to shriek and paddle closer to us, grabbing at the side of the boat. Already on edge, my worst fears were realised when one of them pulled a machete from the side of his canoe. Before any of us knew what was happening, more machetes appeared and the men made their way onto the deck of our boat.
If there was anything amusing about the situation, it had now disappeared as we all huddled together at the front of the boat. The local crew on board attempted to take control of the situation and kept themselves between our machete-wielding invaders and us. Human instinct had kicked in as we sort safety in numbers. We moved from one side of the boat to the other as the men continued to scream at us while waving their weapons around wildly.
My anxiety levels were through the roof as I planned my escape off the boat should things get really ugly and the unthinkable happens. After half an hour of intense back and forth, an agreement was struck and we paid the pirates close to $200 to get off the boat and leave us alone. Part of the bargain also included them agreeing to let us stay in the area for another day without cutting our anchor ropes in the night. Breathing a little easier, we watched as the men divided the money amongst themselves and retreated to their canoes. One of the men demanded a can of beer from me before he left. I gave him two and smiled nervously as he glared at me.
Over the course of the night, the reality of what had happened seemed to sink in. We all sat quietly, not daring to talk about what had just happened but knowing full well that we could, by now just as easily be dead and laying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Occasionally I would turn towards the island and strain to see if there were any canoes in the water as I reflected on the last 24 hours and told myself that it can only get better from here.