Friday 26 July 2013

Indian Ocean in a Junk - 17

...continued from story No 16
As explained in the previous episode, the three lads from Manchester and myself were about to steal away from Chittagong, in southeast Bangladesh, under the cover of darkness, to sail in a 23-foot open fishing boat to Singapore.
     Despite stocking our Sampan boat with enough provisions for three weeks and having the enthusiasm of youth, we were nevertheless ill prepared; none of us had any experience of sailing a boat.
     Our departure was a fiasco! It took two hours of cursing in whispers as we untangled ropes and figured out how to haul up the huge heavy canvas sail in the dead of night, though quite why we did so I'll never know, for there wasn't a breath of wind anywhere.
     By 1 am, a river mist had descended and we finally pushed ourselves away from the riverbank. Ahead, lay thirteen miles of congested river and backwaters to navigate before coming to the open sea.
     Perhaps navigate is too precise a word, for we pirouette in eddies, bouncing off unlit moored Sampans, became entangled in the anchor ropes of fishing boats and generally struggled to row and row, whilst drifting downriver with whatever currents seemed to find us.
     By 9 am, the morning mist had lifted and we discovered that we were only as far as the main port and in the main shipping channel, large cargo ships impatiently blew their horns at us to keep out of their way.
     The day dragged on as we continued to drift toward the open sea. Sweat from the heat of the day streaked our blacken faces; it was like being in a bad pantomime.
     It was 5 pm, before we finally managed to sail far enough offshore to be safely in international waters. Not once had we been challenged, despite having faces that looked more like zebras than local fishermen.
     In the days that followed, we gradually came to terms with handling the mainsail, topsail, ropes, and tiller. We divided ourselves into two watches: Sam and Jim were on one watch, with Eric and myself on the other, each team alternating every four hours during the hours of darkness, with a much freer and relaxed arrangement during the daytime.
     Sam, because of his advance years – aged twenty-five –became the self-styled captain.
     I was elected head cook by default, because of my hotel management training. Eric became the handyman/comedian, whilst poor Jim was too busy being seasick to have time to do much else.
     We kept the coast of Burma to our left and steered a steady course southward by way of our small but very efficient oil-filled car compass. The compass was rigged onto the rear end of our home-built life raft, which also acted as a deck and roof to our otherwise open boat. In the event of capsizing this rather inelegant structure was designed to float free and save us.
     Over the next couple of days we settled into a routine of keeping the boat within sight of the coast and occasionally disentangling ourselves from fishing nets. We also mastered the art of climbing over the aft of the boat to crouch and hang on to the tiller, whilst our backsides did what nature intended. A task not easily achieved without constantly being half dunked into the sea, yet at the same time ignore the continuous barrage of quips from ones shipmates.
     One evening, at about 10 pm, we heard the distant noise of rushing water; Sam said that it was probably a river rushing to meet the sea.
     ‘No!’ said Eric, ‘It’s got to be a waterfall crashing over some cliffs in t' sea.’
     We ventured a little closer to find out what it might be; the noise became louder and louder.     Suddenly, all hell broke loose; we felt the boat being lifted and it shot forward at a terrific rate. Bodies were thrown in all directions. Shouts of: ‘Steer away!’, ‘Bloody heck!’, ‘Hang on!’, ‘Who's on Tiller?’, ‘Put the anchor out!’, ‘Grab the oars!’, ‘Where's Jim?’, ‘Drop the topsail!’, and ‘Ooh heck!’, could be heard.
     Then as suddenly as it had started, it was over and the noise and waves were behind us. A landmass, with one or two lights, could be seen just ahead. We were thirty feet from a beach and had just had our first encounter with something called surf.
     ‘Don't panic lads,’ said Captain Sam. ‘I'll dive over and take a line ashore.’
     With that, he grabbed a coil of rope and did a marvelous dive off the bow, only to crumple into a heap in two feet of water.
     The fear of just a few moments ago was immediately dissipated as Jim, Eric, and I, fell into convulsions of laughter at the sight of Sam in the spotlight of our torch, in water up to the knees, rubbing his head with a look of stunned surprise.
     Once our mirth had subsided, we quickly put an anchor behind us and pulled ourselves back into deeper water. We collectively decided to stay put until the following day before attempting to sail back out into deep water again, but before we settled down, we heard strange voices and saw flaming torches move along the beach.
     What should we do? We were trapped between the fury of the surf and an unknown friend or foe. We quickly decided that three of us should swim ashore and face the enemy. We armed ourselves with weapons: a kitchen knife, a bamboo stick and an aluminum saucepan.
     As we emerged from the sea we could just make out a small group of half-naked people in the moonlight, each of whom carried what appeared to be spears or long sticks. We very timidly called a greeting and started to approach them, but as we did so, they turned and fled, then turned to face us again. This happened several times and each time we were getting further away from the beach – were they leading us into a trap? We prepared to make a run back to the boat in case they attacked us.
     After some ten to fifteen tense minutes, we could see by the number of flaming torches that the group had become a crowd and we were near to a small village.
     A young man stepped forward and said: ‘I teacher, what name?’
     It was such a great relief to hear English spoken! The tension that had built up was suddenly gone and everyone tried to speak at once. The young Burmese man was overwhelmed with attempts to speak halting English and translate into Burmese at the same time.
     It transpired that we had come ashore at a small Burmese island off the Island of Akyab. It was just one mile long by a quarter-mile wide and became two islands at high tide, cutting its one village in half.
     We were taken to meet the headman and other elders in a large thatched bamboo house that stood on short stilts; the interior was lit by oil in coconut shells. 
     Being relatively large towering foreigners, we were a strange ‘once in a lifetime’ sight. The whole village arrived and were crowding their way in, until suddenly, the building swayed with all the extra weight, moved sideways and collapsed in a heap of thatch, bodies, chicken, squealing pigs and dust. There were shrieks of laughter all round and not an angry word from anyone, least of all the headman. It was a wonder that nothing caught fire from the flames of the open coconut lamps.
We were among friends … to be continued next week.
 Unfortunately, no photographs survived this voyage. I would welcome any pics to help illustrate these stories,my thanks to Mamunur Rahman and Diptarki for their photos.
This is the second episode of six stories in this series.
Click Here to read the first story
Go to the i-story library for more stories
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